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Nuanced Beethoven’s 7th Wins the Day

Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center
02/29/2024 -  & March 1*, 2, 2024
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E‑flat major, “Emperor”, Opus 73 – Symphony No. 7 in A major, Opus 92
Haochen Zhang (Pianist)
The Philadelphia Orchestra, Nathalie Stutzmann (Conductor)

N. Stutzmann (© Jeff Fusco)

There are only so many approaches to performing the great classics of musical literature. It often feels as though we have heard just about all of them in every guise. Like Goldilocks sitting down to a palette of porridges, I often find them too hot, too cold, and even the “just right” lacks distinction.

As a result, even though I count myself as a Beethoven enthusiast, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s All‑Beethoven program this past weekend, which included a performance of the Symphony No. 7. What, I thought, could principal guest conductor Nathalie Stutzmann and the core musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra do to vigorously shake this masterpiece out of the doldrums of familiarity?

I need not have worried. While preserving the musical values we’ve come to cherish, this was a Beethoven’s Seventh with a fresh new sound: nothing radical, but definitely inspired, perhaps entirely rethought in a way that beguiled, enchanted and energized the listener. It wasn’t technically perfect, and to that I say, “Why not!” Aren’t we all a little tired of the perfectionist maestros of earlier eras who made music into an unyielding discipline rather than a celebration of spirit? Music should have nicks and scrapes just as people do, and we love them no less, perhaps even more for their vulnerability.

In this interpretation of the Seventh, I sometimes found myself hearing phrases and detecting colors I’d never noticed before: a small ripple in the flute, or the way the bassoons danced briefly with the French horns. I even enjoyed being mildly annoyed by a repeated trumpet note, a little too prominent in the final movement, which I had somehow daydreamed away in the dozens of performances I’ve listened to in the past. We may be used to confronting this great symphony as though it were an angel‑food cake, all white and pure, but dry as dust, whereas it is more like a tiramisu bursting with mocha and that kick of caffeine. At the same time, I could feel the music (in each individual movement and as a whole) become more than a sequence of notes and phrases: the strange slow march of the second movement, for example, with its theme that seems to become a living thing, as it winds up a spiral staircase of intensity after several increasingly potent variations.

While the second movement, with its faintly Turkish sinuosity, remains for many the centerpiece of this large work, the final movement was a rainbow of colors saturating the ear. It was in this movement that Stutzmann cut loose and the musicians with her, in almost a swagger of synchronicity, as close to improvisation as an ensemble of this magnitude can achieve. Visually as well as musically, Stutzmann liberated the musical forces before her with power and a sense of revelation, as though she were surprised at what was happening, and I found myself transported beyond music, words, into the realm of the soul itself.

I didn’t experience the same euphoria in the first work on the program, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor.” Haochen Zhang soloed in a work that started off sleepily, but soon picked up a pace that continued for some 40 minutes, gaining confidence as it progressed. Pianist and orchestra were strong when strength was needed—which is often the case with the “Emperor’’—and tender when softer passages appeared. But there was little sense of transformation or exploration of nuance. I felt that the conductor and soloist were focusing too much on each other, trying to get inside each other’s heads rather than to sink into a sensation-rich pas de deux.

Technically, though, soloist and orchestra gave a solid performance. Despite the rigors of the first two movements, Zhang glommed onto that treacherous motif in the opening of the third, the Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo, and made each iteration stronger than its predecessor. Zhang offered an eloquent reading of R. Schumann’s “Träumerei” as his encore, ending with a very long silence broken at last by the first brave audience member to applaud. It was an original touch and added to a program of both ordinary and extraordinary moments.

Linda Holt



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