Carnegie Hall, the country’s premier concert venue, opened its session on Wednesday, after being closed for 572 days because of the pandemic. It took only a simple greeting from the stage—”Welcome Back,” spoken by Hall’s executive and artistic director Clive Gillinson—for the audience to relentlessly cheer.
On paper, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s program—which includes favorites such as Bernstein’s joyful overture to “Candide” and staples like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—veered toward the traditional purpose of an opening night as a crowd-pleasing fund-raising gala. seemed to have happened. Yet the choice of works and the lively music-making went deeper than I expected in questions of the relevance and renewal of classical music.
The orchestra’s music director Yannick Nezat-Seguin began by leading a performance of Valerie Coleman’s “Seven O’Clock Shout”, a work that was premiered online in May by Philadelphians. This five-minute score has become the orchestra’s unofficial anthem for this difficult period. Inspired by Boccaccio and cheers at 7 p.m. for frontline workers during the pandemic, this piece offers a hard-won vision of a more beautiful place.
This cautious trumpet opens with fanfare that activates the vibrating strings. The music passes the path of jittery riffs, burnt-string strings, elegance quiet and explosive restlessness – complete with genuine shouts and clapping from the players. Sometimes the piece has a Copeland-esque sparkle, but Coleman adds tart harmonic tweaks and loud syncopation that consistently surprises.
The prolific pianist Yuza Wang was the soloist for Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, a work from 1957 considered one of this composer’s light, witty scores. But from the start, this performance—particularly Wang’s commanding, colorful play—was determined to look beneath the bustling surface for a hint of the bitterly sarcastic Shostakovich.
Lively accompanied by woodwinds, as the orchestra played the cheering opening theme, Wang almost swept the ground with a subtly lyrical rendition of the piano’s quirky lines. Then, taking charge, he sent out bursts of brittle strings, tossed out creepy-creepy runs and continued to bring out the sweetly sweet and hardworking steely elements of the three-movement work.
Then Nezette-Seguin, who is currently leading a performance of Terrence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” in her other role as Metropolitan Opera’s musical director, turned to the “Candide” overture — and They may have tried hard to tease out the jagged edges and layered complexity in Bernstein’s gleaming, catchy music.
He then spoke to the audience about how the disruptions of the pandemic shocked our collective sense of “where are we, where are we going” and explained the pairing of the final two acts of the program: Iman Habibi’s short “Jeder Bom Sprich” ( “Every Tree Speaks”) and Beethoven’s Fifth. The Habibi score, written in dialogue with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, premiered in an empty hall in Philadelphia on March 12, 2020, after the pandemic stopped.
Habibi imagines how Beethoven, a nature lover, might respond to today’s climate crisis. On Wednesday, the compelling piece unfolded like a series of disjointed attempts at harmony and serenity, with fitted beginnings, smoky melody and yet irregular rhythmic figures. Finally, the feeling of affirmation and richness of brass, however, is uneasy.
Without a pause, Nezette-Seguin turned to Beethoven. And if you thought this classic work sounded heroic and monumental, this performance was not for you. Here was a fast, in-the-moment account. The tempo kept shifting. Some passages proceeded breathlessly, only to argue for episodes in which Nezette-Seguin brought out lyrical inner voices that you rarely hear so prominently. It was exciting and unexpected. Beethoven felt as if he was responding to Habibi as much as the opposite.
As part of the celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, Philadelphians planned to present a complete survey of the symphony at Carnegie last season. That cycle will now take place in five shows over the coming months, most of which will be small new pieces before Totemic works. (Coming at Carnegie at least seven times, the orchestra also plays more Coleman with Barber and Florence Price in February, and Beethoven’s “Missa Soleimanis” in April.)
If the opening-night pairings and performances were allegorical, this series would be a stimulating conversation between classical music’s storied past and the tumultuous present.