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The version I want to hear again

Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center
03/21/2024 -  & March 22*, 23, 2024
Claude Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Guillaume Connesson: Concerto da Requiem
Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B‑flat major, Op. 100

Christian Schmitt (organ)
Philadelphia Orchestra, Paavo Järvi (conductor)

P. Järvi, C. Schmitt (© Diana Antal)

Prokofiev’s Fifth: where have you been all my life? I have long enjoyed the company, style, and wit of this symphonic creation, but never so much as on March 22, 2024, during a matinee performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra, This is the version I want to hear again and make my own.

The work started off humbly enough, with an attractive whisper of French horns. But once the symphony built up some steam, the Estonian conductor pulled out the stops with a performance that gained depth and eloquence as it unfurled and raced boldly to a breathtaking conclusion.

There is nothing willy-nilly about this large, well‑formed orchestral work, created in 1944 after Prokofiev returned to his native Russia (then the USSR) after many years abroad. The work is unabashedly modern in the 20th century sense, but almost classical in its architectural union. Above all, it is a joyful work, filled with the composer’s love of humanity, humor, and beguiling melodies.

Smiling, nodding, and drawing out the inflections he desired with broad gestures, Järvi clearly enjoyed every moment conducting this 50‑minute orchestral journey. The sweeping lyricism of the second and third movements complemented the brassy impetuosity of the first and fourth, with explosive percussion bursts of energy culminating in a flourish that nearly knocked me out of my seat.

While I usually refrain from comparing artists with their parents who may also happen to be artists, I cannot resist suggesting that Paavo may have inherited his affinity for Prokofiev from his father, the conductor Neeme Järvi, who, at least in a recording issued in 1986, clearly knew a thing or two about bringing the Russian composer’s black and white notes to an electrifying rainbow of colors.

The solo sextet that completes the symphony in a whirlwind blast of several high‑octane seconds deserves special mention: Juliette Kang and Kim Fisher, violins; CJ Chang, viola; Hai‑Ye Ni and Priscilla Lee, cellos; and Joe Conyers, bass. Adding unflagging energy to the entire work were Don Liuzzi on timpani and Angela Zator Nelson on bass drum.

The first half of the concert opened with Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun Jeffrey Khaner’s flute providing the heavenly opening solo. While this work is supposed to suggest the feelings of a sleepy nature sprite awakening from dreams, I found the pace and expression of the 10‑minute work a bit underwhelming. Consulting the dictionary, I learned, however, that a faun is not the tempestuous hottie I imagined, but rather a toned‑down version of the more voluptuous satyr. If you like your fauns on the mild‑mannered side, then this Prelude was meant for you.

The program also included the United States premiere of Guillaume Connesson’s Concerto da Requiem for organ and orchestra. And what an organ it was for this performance: the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ, with Christian Schmitt, organist. This work was composed in 2020, during the height of the pandemic. The three movements are titled after sections of the traditional Catholic requiem mass: Kyrie, Dies Irae, and Dona nobis pacem. This is a complex concerto with many interwoven musical lines, fully exploiting the volume and range of this powerhouse of an instrument.

Connesson explores the full capacity of the organ in this work, rising from very dark, almost sinister chords to heights that suggest the celestial. While by and large fitting in with the long, storied history of French organ music, the combined forces of organ and orchestra at times reached ear‑splitting intensity. However, this was not gratuitous noise, but integral building blocks through which the composer constructed his musical pantheon. The use of xylophone and vibraphone, in addition to the organ, created some handsome effects and colors. The work included some impressive playing on the pedals, no hands involved, much like a performance of a Bach gigue.

Schmitt proved himself a highly accomplished organist in a variegated composition. So much was going on in terms of the large orchestra and complexities of the organ, I fear that expressiveness was, at times, overlooked. Bombast and volume are exciting, but there is also a place for nuance and thoughtful reflection. While I look forward to hearing this work again, I hope some middle path between introspective sensitivity and “full throttle” can be achieved.

Linda Holt



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