Despite the fact that they are emerging from chapter 11 bankruptcy, the Philadelphia Orchestra is still playing away and able to attract top notch conductors. They were led by Sir Simon Rattle this past weekend, including a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York. I went up to Philly to hear them in their home at the Kimmel Center yesterday. It’s actually the second time I’ve heard Rattle conduct them there; the first time was a sublime performance of Schubert’s Great Symphony, which I wished would never come to an end. (I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Kimmel Center but I have to say I find it rather uninviting. I’m no architect, but it seems to me to be the most peculiar conglomeration of styles. Everything is housed in a big glass dome, inside of which is a round, stone chamber hall; stuck off to the side is a kind of tacked on art gallery; there are refreshment centers dotted about seemingly at random; and the main auditorium itself is a big wooden box. Once inside, the auditorium has a surprisingly warm and intimate feel, and the experience improves, I’m happy to say.)
In any event, the concert yesterday paired Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 and Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, with Anton Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra sandwiched in between. Rattle is a great champion of contemporary music (I use the term even though Webern’s pieces were composed over a hundred years ago, in 1909!) and he made the Six Pieces much more lucid than I feared they might be. Perhaps I might even be brave enough to program them some day. It was curious to me that Rattle opened the program with the Brahms and ended with the Schumann, given that the Schumann was written first, and Brahms quoted from it, but both were, needless to say, beautiful readings. The Brahms especially was gorgeous and lush and detailed and nuanced.
The orchestra is poised to welcome their new Music Director, the 37 year old Canadian, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, in September and I hope that will be a wonderful new chapter (no pun intended) for them. It seemed to me that they were a little bruised and had lost some of the gloss that has positioned them as one of the top five great American orchestras for decades. The strings are still strong and have a wonderful sheen (the cellos, I thought, were particularly strong) but some of the brass playing was shy of the legendary status one has come to expect from that orchestra. Still, they clearly love working with Rattle (I watched a second violinist just sitting there looking at him when we was not actually playing) and one can’t help but dream of what might have been if Sir Simon had accepted their offer to become their Music Director instead of holding out for the position at the Berlin Philharmonic, where he now is.
He conducted both symphonies from memory, and he is a tremendously engaged conductor. Of course, one expects any conductor to be so, but he seems to communicated the music very intensely through his body and his facial expressions. And the orchestra is intensely responsive to him. At the opening of the slow movement for the Brahms, for instance, I watched the pulse of his left hand being immediately transformed into a shift of nuance from the orchestra. Rattle is self effacing on the podium (perhaps some of the British restraint?) but there is no doubt why he is considered one of the great conductors today. It’s thrilling to watch him make music.