Review: Yannick Nézet-Séguin Leads The Philadelphia Orchestra in ‘Energetic’ Music

Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s latest program with The Philadelphia Orchestra was an intelligently thought-out adventure. The central work was Alternative Energy by Mason Bates, in its East Coast premiere, and Nézet-Séguin chose two other compositions with similar subject matter.

Mason Bates. Photo by Mike Minehan.
Mason Bates. Photo by Mike Minehan.

Bates focused on the uses of energy in 20th and 21st Century America, and as he imagined it might be used in 22nd Century China and 23rd Century Iceland. He used a sonic palette of prominent winds and brasses, percussion, mechanistic sound effects and amplified recordings of power plants and bird songs. The composer was seated in the rear of the orchestra with his computer. When it was his turn, Bates bent forward over his pad, pushing the buttons that sent his samplings over loudspeakers.

The music began with a rustic fiddle tune, played energetically by concertmaster David Kim, which conjured the youth of Henry Ford on a farm in Michigan. Ford built his first gasoline-powered horseless carriage in the shed behind his home. He later introduced the use of standardized, interchangeable parts and the world’s first moving assembly line for cars. The violin solo morphed into massive orchestral sounds with accelerating rhythms, punctuated by a loud wooden crank, recalling the way the engines of early automobiles were started.

The second movement, titled “Chicago, 2012,” invoked particle accelerator machines that speed up electrons or protons for purposes such as destroying cancers or exploding atomic bombs. Hip-hop beats of present-day Chicago were interjected into the orchestra. The third movement was labeled “Xinjiang Province, 2112” and portrayed a Chinese power plant erupting in a meltdown. A solo flute sang a dirge for lives that were lost in the disaster. Its melody was a distorted version of Henry Ford’s fiddle tune.

In “Reykjavik, 2222” Bates imagined that global warming flooded most of the world, and Iceland survived as a lonely island with a tropical rainforest. Recordings of birds illustrated a return to primitivism where humanity’s last inhabitants, in Bates’ words, “seek a return to a simpler way of life.” Distant voices called for a return to fire as the main source of energy.

Bates’ pulsating rhythms and shifting beats, chimes, tubular bells, bundles of wood sticks, car parts, Chinese cymbals and Thai gongs created a powerful force. Melodies were subsidiary, and not memorable on first listening. I recall what critics wrote about the premiere of Carlos Chavez’s HP (Horse Power) around 1930, concerning mechanization and its impact on society. Olin Downes in The New York Times wrote of “confounding sounds that suggested the whirring, flicking and roaring of machines.” The Associated Press said HP was “a nightmare of cogs and wheels, pipes and pumps.” Better than HP, the imaginative Alternative Energy deserves at least a second hearing.

The 40-year-old Bates has an alternative life as a disc jockey in clubs. He lives with his wife (a molecular biologist) and their young children in San Francisco. The San Francisco Symphony released a recording of three of Bates’ orchestral works, and his opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs will have its world premiere this summer in Santa Fe. Each character in it will have not only his own leitmotif but his own instrument. Jobs’ will be an acoustic guitar.

Other pieces on the program dealt with fire, one of the earliest forces of energy. Prometheus was a mythological figure who stole fire from the gods and brought it to mankind, and he supposedly incurred the wrath of Zeus for committing this theft. Beethoven’s ballet Creatures of Prometheus began the program and Liszt’s tone poem Prometheus came later.

Beethoven composed music for a ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, in 1801. It was his first major foray beyond his piano compositions, and it remained the only ballet score of his career. Only its overture is well-known, and it was great that Nézet-Séguin added the finale of the ballet at this concert. The theme of that finale was used later as the principal melody in the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony.

Both of these excerpts show Beethoven exploiting coloristic effects that would not appear in his symphonies or serious dramatic overtures. Another section of Beethoven’s score is available only in a private recording made in 1986 by my friend, the great Laila Storch (now age 96) on oboe, with William McColl on basset horn and Anita Cummings at the piano. It has a sweet lyricism not usually associated with Beethoven.

Liszt’s Prometheus is a 13-minute tone poem that sounds very old-fashioned compared to the Bates composition. Filled with brass fanfares and brooding strings, it’s hard to recall that this was considered to be progressive music when it was new in 1855. Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphians gave it a rousing performance, as they also did with the rest of the program.

Daniil Trifonov. Photo by Dario Acosta - Deutsche Grammophon.
Daniil Trifonov. Photo by Dario Acosta – Deutsche Grammophon.

Other musicalizations of Prometheus have been composed by Gabriel Fauré, Alexander Scriabin and Hugo Wolf. I would have loved hearing any one of them to fill out this enlightening program. Instead, the Philadelphia Orchestra inserted a Mozart piano concerto at the request of its guest artist, Daniil Trifonov. Even Nézet-Séguin admitted, “There’s no connection between this and the rest of the program, but we always love Mozart.”

Mozart’s piano concerto number 9 has been labeled the “Jeunehomme.” The nickname came from a mispronunciation. No “Jeunehomme” (young man) had anything to do with it. Victoire Jenamy, the daughter of a friend of Mozart’s, was the name of the woman who commissioned and premiered the work.

Written by Mozart at the age of 21, many consider it his first masterpiece. In the opening movement he used a theme whose melodic inversion returned years later as Cherubino’s “Non so piu” in The Marriage of Figaro. The second movement is decidedly unusual in Mozart’s use of a minor key (C minor) and has a slow, melancholy tone like a scene from a sad opera. The final movement is a rapid presto.

Trifonov has been criticized as a pianist who alters compositions to give them idiosyncratic interpretations. Not so here. His first movement was unmannered and crystalline clear. In the slow middle movement his playing was dreamy, like a soprano singing in one of Mozart’s operas, questioning, searching, and probing. And in the fast finale, Trifonov leaned forward, unexpectedly intent on the keyboard.

The orchestra for this concerto was almost all strings, with the only exceptions being two oboes and two horns. Nézet-Séguin kept those forces alert and sprightly.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including an intermission.

Daniil Trifonov. Photo by Dario Acosta - Deutsche Grammophon.
Daniil Trifonov. Photo by Dario Acosta – Deutsche Grammophon.

The Philadelphia Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin – Conductor; Mason Bates – Electronica; Daniil Trifonov – Piano; playing Beethoven, Bates, Mozart and Liszt, performs through April 9, 2017 at Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts – 300 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets to future concerts and shows, call the box office at (215) 893-1999, or purchase them online.


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