The Philadelphia Orchestra’s final “virtual” concert of its regular 2020-21 season proffered one of its most compelling programs since the suspension of “in-person” performances.
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s final “virtual” concert of its regular 2020-21 season proffered one of its most compelling programs since the suspension of “in-person” performances at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown. Conducted by music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the roster of music opened with the Overture to Mozart’s opera, “The Magic Flute,” followed by the U.S. premiere of Mason Bates’ “Undistant,” and concluded with Beethoven’s Second Symphony.
Prior to the performance of his work, Bates explained that he conceived “Undistant” early in the pandemic’s lockdown, when it began to sink in for all of us that life was going to be very different for the next few months, at the very least. “Social distancing” meant that hearing performances of great music “in-person” was no longer possible, and that audiences around the world would have to accustom themselves to a “distanced” form of audience-involvement.
The Philadelphia-born Bates’ “Undistant” is firmly rooted in the tradition of the finest film scores. Predecessors such as Alex North (born in Chester and educated in Philadelphia at Settlement Music School and the Curtis Institute of Music) and Nino Rota (another Curtis alumnus) would recognize Bates’ approach to tonality and orchestration.
“Undistant” is scored for a full instrumental ensemble of strings, woodwinds, brass & percussion plus digital electronic sounds directed from a laptop computer. The acoustical instruments play over the artificially produced electronic tones, establishing a mood of slight unsettledness yet one in which the narrative direction of the music is both compelling and convincing. Musical moments build one upon the next in a natural flow to a powerful structural climax, a subsequent gentle resolution, and a final dramatic exclamation. It was played evocatively.
The Philadelphians’ reading of the Overture to “The Magic Flute” was most notable for the many fine woodwind and brass solos that stood out from the ensemble in glowing profiles yet that still blended into it as part of a coherent whole. Principal trombonist Nitzan Heroz, oboist Peter Smith, clarinetist Samuel Caviezel and flutist Jeffrey Khaner all caught Mozart’s lyrical style as well as the fantastical character of the opera.
Beethoven’s beautiful Second Symphony didn’t receive quite as persuasive an interpretation, although the playing was every bit as exemplary. Principal oboist Philippe Tondre, principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales and flutist Patrick Williams proffered exquisite solo lines.
The accents in the slow opening of the first movement seemed excessively applied, yet the faster section of the movement lacked the requisite sense of urgency beneath the superficial sizzle. The rendition of the lyrical second movement displayed the appropriate feeling of open-air expansiveness, but the quality of the third movement Scherzo was more leaden and heavy-footed than humorous as the title suggests, and the closing movement was simply loud in dynamics rather than ample in substance.
The Orchestra will present a free concert June 25 at 7 p.m. entitled “Let Freedom Ring” at the Great Plaza at Penn’s Landing. Then, July 8-15, Yannick Nezet-Seguin will lead a summer “virtual” concert July 8-15 featuring Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” and “Mother Goose” Suite plus Bizet’s Symphony No. 1.
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