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Monday, September 26, 2022

Review: Without a Note of Beethoven, an Orchestra Shines

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The vast majority of the music the Philadelphia Orchestra is playing in its eight concerts at Carnegie Hall this season is by Beethoven.

Under its music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, this ensemble plays the master with warmth and verve. And alongside the nine classic symphonies, it is presenting contemporary works written in response, a tried-and-true technique to scooch in the new with the old, spoonful-of-sugar style. They’ve been worthy performances.

But even though three of the concerts are yet to come — Beethoven’s First and Ninth on Feb. 21, then his “Missa Solemnis” and a John Williams gala in April — I reckon that nothing the Philadelphians do at Carnegie this season will be more impressive than Tuesday’s performance.

There was not a note of Beethoven. Nor, for that matter, any piece that could be considered a standard audience draw. The closest thing to a chestnut, Samuel Barber’s 1947 soprano monologue “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” bloomed in the fresh company of two new works and Florence Price’s once-forgotten Symphony No. 1.

When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered the Price in 1933, it was the first work by a Black woman to be played by a major orchestra. While women and composers of color are now better represented on programs, it is still all too rare for them (or for anything but a canonical piece) to have the anchor position at a concert’s end.

So it was a progressive, even inspiring statement for Philadelphia — which released a recording of Price’s First and Third symphonies last year — to close with the First. And the players gave it the same vitality and subtlety they’ve brought to Beethoven.

The opening bassoon line was here less a solo showpiece than a mellow song nestled modestly within the textures of the strings. In that bassoon call — along with the blending of folk-style melodies and classical sweep, and a dancing finale — Price’s symphony bears the unmistakable influence of Dvorak’s “New World.” But it is very much its own piece, with an arresting vacillation between raging force and abrupt lyrical oases in the first movement and a wind whistle echoing through the vibrant Juba dance in the third.

Price clearly knew she had a good tune in the slow second movement, a hymnlike refrain for brass chorale that she milks for all it’s worth. But the many repetitions, with delicate African drumming underneath, take on the shining dignity of prayer. And the ending, with rapid calligraphy in the winds winding around the theme, rises to ecstasy, punctuated by bells.

Sounding lush yet focused and committed, Nézet-Séguin’s orchestra even highlights a quality I hadn’t particularly associated with Price: humor, in her dances and in the way a clarinet suddenly squiggles out of that slow hymn, like a giggle in church.

The concert opened with a new suite by Matthew Aucoin adapted from his opera “Eurydice,” which played at the Metropolitan Opera last fall. At the Met, Aucoin’s score swamped a winsome story, but in an 18-minute instrumental digest, it was easier to appreciate his music’s dense, raucous extravagance, the way he whips an orchestra from mists into oceans, then makes pummeling percussion chase it into a gallop. Ricardo Morales, the Philadelphians’ principal clarinet, played his doleful solo with airily glowing tone, a letter from another world.

There was grandeur, too, in Valerie Coleman’s “This Is Not a Small Voice,” her new setting of a poetic paean to Black pride by Sonia Sanchez that weaves from rumination to bold declaration. The soprano Angel Blue was keen, her tone as rich yet light as whipped cream, in a difficult solo part, which demands crisp speak-singing articulation and delves into velvety depths before soaring upward to glistening high notes. Blue was also superb — sweet and gentle, but always lively — in the nostalgic Barber.

In its inspired alignment of old and new, the concert recalled last week’s program at the New York Philharmonic, which also closed with a rediscovered symphony by a Black composer. When it comes to broadening the sounds that echo through our opera houses and concert halls, change can be frustratingly slow. But to hear, within a few days, two of the country’s most venerable orchestras play symphonies by Julius Eastman and Florence Price did give the sense of watching the tectonic plates of the repertory shift in real time.

Philadelphia Orchestra

Appears next at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan, on Feb. 21.

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