Walter Waugaman
Posted on Sat, Dec. 5, 2009

Making others look good

Nézet-Séguin stands out by standing back

By David Patrick Stearns
Inquirer Classical Music Critic

Of all the paradoxes: Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin became the hero of his own concert by ceding the spotlight to all around him, making them look terrific - or better than they normally might.
In this 34-year-old French Canadian conductor's reengagement Thursday with the Philadelphia Orchestra (as the music-director search goes into high gear), nothing was safe or certain, from his slightly strange concert attire (a long dark tie) to the ultra-slow tempos he allowed pianist Nicholas Angelich to take in Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1.
In a way, Nézet-Séguin showed what life would be like in a typical week with the conductor serving multiple agendas: the soloist's repertoire and established interpretation, plus the cause of modern music, in this case the 1980 Orion by the late Claude Vivier. The main orchestral work was Franck's worthy Symphony in D, though squeezing out a payoff isn't easy. Nézet-Séguin's strengths include solid pragmatism that makes the music work as an architectural entity, fired by less-tangible inspiration that makes you care about the whole package. Even the oft-heard incidental solos in the Brahms took on a new meaning while helping Angelich make a case for his slowness.
In effect, the pianist was following in the huge footsteps of Claudio Arrau, whose slow tempos created needed space for profundity. Angelich isn't there yet. He seemed to have preemptive separation anxiety from whatever phrase he was playing. But thanks to his intelligence and intuition, I'll happily hear him at all points on that road. Technically, he's fabulous; he also manages slow tempos without losing the train of thought.
There's no danger of that happening in any performance of the Franck symphony, which reexamines its thoughts so obsessively (and yields remarkably little by doing so) that you wish for less continuity. Nézet-Séguin went for maximum tempo and volume contrast, plus vivid instrumental colors in sections that cross-cut so dramatically that the performance had an almost cinematic quality. Smartest of all, he defied the composer's Wagnerian tendencies, dividing normally serpentine melodies into discrete sections that had different things to say. That was fine for the first movement, but by the third, orchestra and music were running on empty.
Certainly, Orion didn't lack variety: Its rich scoring allows so many ways to connect the dots that performances vary wildly. In some, it seems to quote from Psycho; others take a swing through Das Rheingold. Balinese percussion is always a strong presence, but Orion has its own nationality with antiphonal echoes, calls and responses fusing East and West.
As someone used to Germanic performances, I was thrilled to hear so much mystery and hard-to-identify sound in Nézet-Séguin's coloristically astute, emotionally anchored performance, from a muted trombone solo to vocalizing that sounded like a Muslim call to prayer but was actually percussionist Don Liuzzi's voice bouncing off a gong.
Posted on 6 Dec 2009, 5:20 AM