Review: Post-Romantic Nationalism, Philadelphia Orchestra feat. Gil Shaham

Tuesday, October 13 2015
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Gil Shaham, violin

Grieg, Suite No. 1 from Peer Gynt (1888)
Bartók, Violin Concerto No. 2 (1938)

Sibelius, Symphony No. 5 (1919)

Philadelphia Orchestra’s appearances at Carnegie Hall hold prominent places on my calendar and in my heart, like Opening Day or Terence Tao’s lectures on the East Coast.  This preeminent ensemble was the one constant of the six grueling (though ultimately illuminating) years I spent in Philly for grad school, and they feel like family–just watching concertmaster David Kim tuning the orchestra makes me tear up a little.

Major orchestras don’t like to be called out as conservative at Carnegie Hall, and as such they tend to bring somewhat edgy programming.  At least one tonally nontraditional piece seems to be expected, otherwise I would have loved it if Dvořák were substituted for Bartók in this lineup of post-Romantic nationalist composers.  The opening piece, Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, was incredible.  It’s a familiar piece, one I thought couldn’t really be messed up (“In the Hall of Mountain King” was played admirably as an encore by a Norwegian youth orchestra at Tivoli this past summer), but at the same time couldn’t really be elevated either.  I was wrong.  During the second, strings-only, movement, “The Death of Åse”, a hush fell over the auditorium and I couldn’t understand how a piece that I had listened to hours before on Youtube and left no impression was suddenly making my soul swell.  I wished time would slow down so that I could remember the sensation of each note, and each bow was bittersweet in its smoothness, like sand passing through an hourglass.  I knew I could listen to this piece again, maybe find another version on Youtube, but it would never be like it was tonight.

Perhaps due to his atonal tendencies, Bartók is one of those composers I simply don’t get.  Gil Shaham has an engaging stage presence, swaying and frolicking with his instrument as if dancing to a Hungarian folk tune.  Sometimes he fiddled inches away from Yannick, and sometimes he was nearly on top of the concertmaster, and neither seemed to mind.  Technically he’s superb, especially through that crazy first movement cadenza, and almost all of the string players on stage were observing the soloist intently during measures of rest, which is not always (or even often) the case.  At the end of it all, however, the piece is just not my style.  Shaham’s encore, the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3, was scintillating though in all its baroque glory.

Sibelius is one of my discoveries of 2015, thanks to, of all things, Mozart in the Jungle.  I hadn’t listened to the 5th Symphony until this afternoon, and when I did I immediately took to it and understood why, with its melodic winds and textural strings, the piece was part of the orchestra’s Carnegie Hall programming.  Compared to the other Sibelius pieces that I’ve listened to, the symphony is less bombast than I’d come to expect and more subtle with passages of melancholy, as if the composer’s youthful idealism had given away to the strain and sorrow of age.  It’s a piece that fully highlights the orchestra’s strengths, and even if overshadowed by his players, Yannick did his part to control the tempo of the piece.  This was critical especially toward the end, when Sibelius capped the swan theme finale with six isolated, powerful, mysterious chords.  As the conductor’s arms rested mid-air in between the chords, he was not wearing just his heart on his sleeves, but mine as well.  I love this orchestra so very much.