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The Philadelphians launch BeethovenNOW

Verizon Hall
01/30/2020 -  & January 31*, 2020
Lili Boulanger: D’un soir triste
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major, Op. 15
Louise Farrenc: Symphony no. 2 in D major

Daniil Trifonov (piano)
The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor)

D. Trifonov (© Dario Acosta/Deutsche Grammophon)

To commemorate Beethoven’s 250th birthday, Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin has launched BeethovenNOW, the year to revisit and put the current orchestra’s stamp on all the symphonies and the bounty of other repertory from Beethoven’s works.

Yannick kicked it off in grand style, with the orchestra back in their longtime house, the Academy of Music, for a subscription concert for the first time in two decades. Pianist Yefim Bronfman performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 (slated for CD/digital release). The same week the orchestra was back in Verizon Hall with four performances with pianist Daniil Trifonov performing Beethoven’s First and Fifth concertos. Trifonov may have been the marquee draw, but the rest of the program proved just as interesting with works by Lili Boulanger and Louise Farrenc, that also highlights the orchestra’s season long overdue concept of performing more works by women composers.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 has a lengthy symphonic opening, played on this night with full force. Trifonov makes a warm entrance, a bit distanced from the orchestra and. there were moments the pianist-orchestra energy was a little cold. Everything came together in the Largo and some moments of Beethoven transcendence by the Rondo Allegro 3rd movement. Trifonov’s interpretive artistry came thundering through in Beethoven’s cadenzas, illuminating the edge of Beethoven’s adventurism.

Trifonov revels in the improvisational aspects of certain composers (brilliantly with Chopin) and in this concerto gives him room to explore. He is in the zone, lurching over the keyboard with an entranced intensity, then pulling back, bolt upright, his head drops back in the progressions and orchestral resolves. Worth noting that the maestro kept close eye on the pianist, there was no doubt who was driving this concerto. You sense his visceral connection to the music that is not a performance pose or mask. After three curtain calls of unabated standing ovation, after a long pause backstage, Trifonov strode back onstage and unceremoniously sat down to play Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s Polonaise No. 8 in E minor with its haunting lyricism that is simply magic in Trifonov’s hands.

This season the orchestra is finally performing more music composed by women, past and present, Nézet-Séguin and on this night the orchestra performing two works that should be part of the orchestra’s heavy rotation repertory. A surprise that the maestro didn’t introduce either work, something that he often does with compositions that are being performed by the orchestra for the first time.

The concert opened with a radiant performance of Lili Boulanger’s Of a Sad Evening composed in 1917-18, the last year of her life. She was only 24 years old. There is so much musical life in this work, even with the foreboding atmospherics, Boulanger’s vivid dynamics of the strings and frame the her progressive mise en scène. Among the outstand soloists – cellist Hai-Ye Ni, harp and violin dialogues by David Kim and Elizabeth Hainen, Kyoto Takeuti in the haunting background celesta. All of it so distinctly Boulanger’s, what a great loss to music that she died so young.

The closer proved just as captivating in an altogether stellar performance of this rarely performed work. In a program note for Louise Farrenc’s Symphony no. 2, Nézet-Séguin writes that concert audiences not familiar with Farrenc’s work will be tempted to compare it to the famous classical-romantic composers of the early 19 century – Berlioz, Gounod, Schubert, etc. – and certainly on the surface of the symphony there are symphonic tropes of the era. Nézet-Séguin considers in the program notes that Farrenc’s voice “doesn’t sound like any of these people. It sounds like her.” The structure of the symphony’s four shorter movements is unique, as are the pulsing subtleties of the strings, the sensual blend of woodwinds prescient to French tone poems of the early 20th century. Farrenc was writing her own chapter of French symphonic music that has, without doubt, too long been ignored.

Lewis Whittington



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