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The Philadelphians soulful season opener

Verizon Hall
10/05/2021 -  
Heitor Villa-Lobos: Bachianas brasileiras No. 5: 1. “Aria (Cantilena)”
Camille Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33
Valerie Coleman: Seven O’Clock Shout
Maurice Ravel: Boléro

Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Charlotte Blake Alston (speaker)
The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor)

Y.-Y. Ma, Y. Nézet-Séguin (© Jeff Fusco)

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra were back in Verizon Hall on October 5th for their season opener that ended 18 months away from performing for a live audience. On this night playing to almost packed house for a moving concert program with cello superstar Yo-Yo Ma.

The orchestra was not already onstage as the audience filed in, but instead made their entrance together, and the audience bounded out of their seats to greet them back. In a sartorial switch, the musicians had more modern dress code, sans tails on the men for starters and even maestro Yannick had ruby studs on his shoes. Meanwhile, the crowd had on their required masks, but otherwise were decked out in celebratory outfits – sleek gowns, stylish suits, cocktail hour wraps, studded pumps – giving the evening an added sense of musical occasion.

But the most glittering thing about the night was the program that Nézet-Séguin designed to meet this unique moment. Without ceremony, Yo-Yo Ma entered with the maestro and guest speaker Charlotte Blake Alston. Mr. Ma started to play a somber solo that just engulfed the room and led to Ms. Alston’s invocation for the audience to “stand in the name of human dignity” and spoke to the need for unity in a perilous time and finishing her remarks with a poem by Langston Hughes. Then Ma launched into the Aria from Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas brasileiras, leading the Philadelphia strings in music that was so appropriate, so reflexive of this moment in time.

From there, without pause, Ma glided into the musical labyrinth of Camille Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto, with its unique structure. Ma performance is completely in the service of the music, from the sustained bowing, dark sonorities, staccato riffs, its joyous lyrical passages to its most profound musical chambers. Ma has been playing the concerto for decades, and still does so with such rapturous immediacy. Throughout, Ma’s interplay with the orchestra musicians showcases a joyous shared artistry.

The concert was performed without intermission, and Nézet-Séguin spoke about the role that music can play to help heal a traumatized world. And to be together again for the shared expressions of “Joy, reflection, introspection, hopes and dreams.” He then introduced Valerie Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout composed in tribute to the front-line workers that saw us through the pandemic. Coleman was inspired by the New Yorkers who banged on pots and shouted their support every evening in solidarity for health care workers, police officers, food service employees, transit workers and who kept serving their communities. The somber atmosphere of the first half of the piece shifts into an orchestral statement of communal solidarity with the musicians shouting out and the percussion banging out a joyful noise of hope.

The closer was Ravel’s Boléro which never loses its luster with audiences. Even though the lead solos were sharp, this Boléro seemed a tad disjointed in the first half of its slow build symphonics. It all came together , by midway through, with outstanding solos by Peter Smith (oboe), Daniel Matsukawa (bassoon), Ricardo Morales (clarinet) and the blazing trumpet of Jeffrey Curnow.. When the full strings thundered in, their lustrous depth engulfing Verizon Hall, led by principal violinists David Kim and Kimberly Fisher.

The Fabulous Philadelphians packed their season launch with events, the following night were in New York City for their return to Carnegie Hall performing a completely different program with soloist Yuja Wang, then were back to Philly for a three-concert weekend with a program called American Masters, with pianist Aaron Diehl performing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Lewis Whittington



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