Review: Chopin’s First on Inauguration Eve, Philadelphia Orchestra

Thursday, January 19 2017
Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Louis Lortie, piano

Chopin, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1830)
Stravinsky, Petrushka (1947 version)

It’s been nearly five months since my last blog on the subject of music, five months since the last time I attended a concert in New York City.  I did catch a performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto while on vacation in Bergen (Norway) in early September, as well as a spectacle of Beethoven’s Ninth while traveling in Kyoto (Japan) over the holidays.  I didn’t blog about them here, partially because the fjords and the temples felt more exciting than Elgar and Beethoven, and partially because even on vacation I was preoccupied, first with baseball as summer turned to fall and then with the election’s aftermath as fall turned to winter–the same preoccupations, really, that kept me from Carnegie Hall all season long.  I wasn’t going to blog about the concert in Philly either–I was in town for a dentist appointment and decided to stay for some Chopin–but the experience just needed to be shared here and now.

Mostly, I have to share what happened before the regularly scheduled programming.  As the musicians took their seats, we realized there was no piano on stage.  (That, and it was a full orchestra with a tuba.)  But the Chopin concerto!  Was the pianist sick?  Don’t tell me I stayed in town for nothing.  Then Yannick walked onto the stage and assured the audience that the piano concerto was still on, but first the orchestra had prepared a surprise.  They were going to perform a piece of music composed during WWI by the female composer Lili Boulanger and finished by her sister Nadia Boulanger, who picked up the piece after Lili’s untimely death at age 25.  Nadia was herself one of the first prominent female conductors in the world.  The composition is called D’un matin de printemps (Of a spring morning). I’ve been to hundreds of classical concerts and had never seen musicians perform an unprogrammed piece except as an encore; it was perplexing, especially since Yannick made a sly but clear reference to the orchestra practicing it in the morning, so it’s not a spur of the moment addition.  It was only later that I understood this was a subtle (or not so subtle) sign of support for the Women’s March, which is a really lovely showing of solidarity.  I must listen to the music again–with stylistic connections to Debussy and Stravinsky, two composers I’m not particularly fond it, I zoned out at the time, but expect deeper a connection now that I have context.

The ensuing Chopin was also an experience that I will remember for a long time, not because the performance was great–in fact it wasn’t even good: the orchestra sounded hollow at times, messy at others, and under-rehearsed throughout; the pianist was mechanical and without nuance, covering up what I suspect to be lack of finer control with speed; all in all probably the worst I’ve ever heard from this orchestra and far below the standards of the last time that I’d heard the piece in person.  But on this evening none of that mattered.  The First Piano Concerto, like much of Chopin’s music, is melancholic but leaves one feeling invigorated instead of in despair.  Indeed, from its vulnerability comes strength, and from its wistfulness comes hope.  So apropos of the eve of the inauguration that the music, transcending the performance thereof, left me breathless and nearly in tears.

Emotionally drained and physically exhausted by the intermission, I was mentally checked out by the Petrushka, which I can’t bring myself to love even in the best of circumstances anyway.  I do think I like the original 1911 version better than the 1947 revised version performed here.  To be honest I really have no idea what the music is about, but the winds and the percussions seemed to have fun (perhaps deranged fun).  And why not, the orchestra’s woodwinds is as about as good as it gets.  Though I had pondered ditching the second half of the program, even in my listless state I don’t regret a single minute spent in this familiar concert hall.  It will always feel like home, so not getting back to my actual home until 2am is a small price to pay.

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