Review: The Philadelphia Orchestra Returns, With Force

Carnegie Hall’s season-opening concert — featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra, a frequent visitor in the coming months — on Thursday night had light fare written all over it.

Ravel’s “La Valse” and Liszt’s First Piano Concerto are dazzlers, and Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony is a font of graceful melodies. With a gala dinner afterward, the program promised to go down easy. But Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the orchestra’s music director, had other ideas.

From the start, “La Valse” was heavy with portent. The snatches of waltz melodies at the beginning did not flit, flicker and come together as they have in other interpretations. The bassoons roused themselves slowly, heavily, refusing to leave their slumber. The strings swooned steadily, and the double basses laid down a menacing pulse.

For his choreographic poem, Ravel imagined “an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd,” and in the sheer refulgence of the waltzes, one can see dignified couples sweeping in circles across a floor. Nézet-Séguin brought to mind a gruesome dance, woozy and foreboding. (Some have agreed with that macabre transfiguration, seeing in it a metaphor for the decay of European glory after World War I, but Ravel resisted such interpretations.) The finale was controlled pandemonium. The Liszt and Dvorak likewise careened toward their conclusions.

As he did with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in June, Nézet-Séguin reveled in the power of a full orchestra. This time, though, he used a heavy hand to force pieces into uncharacteristic shapes.

Dvorak’s normally uplifting symphony turned toward stone-faced implacability; even the clarinets playing in thirds moved lugubriously. In the Liszt, the brasses aimed not only for the back row but seemingly also for passers-by on the street.

Elsewhere, there were moments of elegance, joy and even whimsy: a glistening violin solo from the concertmaster, David Kim, in the Dvorak, or basically anything the cellos touched with their warm, translucent feeling.

Liszt’s piano concerto, the work of an established showman who wanted to be taken seriously as a composer, combines virtuosic glitter with transparently textured chamber music. One moment you’re in a clarinet sonata; in the next, a sparkling impromptu cutting through an orchestra.

The soloist, Daniil Trifonov, concerned himself less with tone quality than with technical bravura. His passagework had a hard glare, and he lined up chords neatly like punctuation marks. Liszt threw down a gauntlet with 19 straight bars of trills in a piece already rife with difficulty, and Trifonov kept it sparking and spinning. It’s a miracle he has any fingerprints left. His scherzo had a wonderfully light air about it.

Like Nézet-Séguin, though, Trifonov commanded respect with his prowess but left me cold.

Trifonov’s encore, an arrangement of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” prompted knee-jerk guffaws from the audience, and maybe for some it’s so trite that it’s unsalvageable. But as he unspooled the music’s hardy melody over an even-keeled accompaniment, it provided a welcome palate cleanser.

Gabriela Lena Frank’s dashing “Chasqui,” excerpted from a six-movement suite for string quartet and arranged for string orchestra, likewise injected new energy into the program. String pizzicatos popped like branches underfoot, and while the high strings turned wiry, the lower ones nurtured a tone that was, in its own way, implacable in its handsomeness.

At Carnegie last season, Nézet-Séguin’s promotion of living female composers gave us a noble piece by Valerie Coleman and a mysteriously evocative one by Missy Mazzoli. Each brought out fresh sensitivities in him. Such advocacy could well become a part of his legacy, and it serves him as a musician as much as them as composers.

Philadelphia Orchestra

Performed on Thursday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.