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The Sounds of Silences

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
05/31/2024 -  & May 30, June 1, 2, 2024 (Philadelphia)
Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major
Valerie Coleman: Concerto for Orchestra, “Renaissance”
Claude Debussy: La Mer

Mitsuko Uchida (Pianist)
The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Music and Artistic Director, Conductor)

M. Uchida (© Justin Pumfrey)

Walking on stage, that’s the moment of truth. All the rest is pretending. That’s why you have to perform. You work differently. You learn different things. You have to risk your life on stage. That’s why live performances are more interesting.
Mitsuko Uchida

The most breathtaking moments of the Philadelphia Orchestra concert last night were not notes. They were the sounds of utter silence. Forty‑five seconds of silence held by conductor Yannick Nézet‑Séguin between the Adagio assai and the Presto movements of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto.

The silence was like an amen. An amen for Mitsuko Uchida’s execution. An amen for Maurice Ravel in his most ravishing single theme. And–most of all–a holy silence for conductor Nézet‑Séguin.

Obviously, the adjective “greatest” has no meaning for the dozen‑ odd great conductors today. Yet Mr. Nézet‑Séguin could well qualify three ways. First musically, of course. His understanding of the two French works on the program, his method of lifting the Philadelphia Orchestra First Chairs and ensemble into a roiling, bursting electric phenomenon.

Second, his visual involvement. Yes, I learned many years ago not to write about a conductor’s movements, just concentrate on the music. Yet Mr. Nézet‑Séguin’s entire physical presence, his sweeping gestures, the illusion of him picking up the Philadelphians and throwing them into the music was stunning to watch.

Third–supposedly minor but in practice last night major–was his personal relations with his musicians. The way he led Ms. Uchida through the orchestral ranks, his bravos to the orchestra. And in a lovely moment, as composer Valerie Coleman stood up to accept the applause, and Mr. Nézet‑Séguin offered an echt Oriental bow to her prowess.

He was wonderful. And joy of joys, we get a second and third helping of Mr. Nézet‑Séguin this month when he conducts the Met Orchestra on June 11 and 14 with Mozart, Wagner, Bartók (the complete Bluebeard) and more.

His program last night was made for his strengths. The Montréal native has a great feeling for the Gallic, and he book‑ended the premiere with Ravel and Debussy.

With the G Major Concerto, he played second fiddle (so to speak) to soloist Uchida. She is not only one of the world’s most compelling artists, but one whose depth lies well underneath the surface. In the opening, the jazzy brass riffs were offset by her quiet counterpoint. Yet oh, how she could jolt the piano with sudden mock‑jazzy notes of her own.

The second movement, which afforded the silence referred to above, I will refer to at the end of this piece. Only to say that it did justice to Ravel the melodist. As for the finale, Ms. Uchida played it with a combination of the silken touch and the torrential toccata. Impossible, yes, but achievable with this special artist.

V. Coleman (© Kia Caldwell)

In a way, the Carnegie Hall premiere of Valerie Coleman’s Concerto for Orchestra was unfortunate. Smack in between the two most exquisite orchestrators of the 20th Century, her “Renaissance” Concerto was competent, crazily, happily jazzy in the final 24 measures and did indeed justify the title.

This was Ms. Coleman’s fifth work for Mr. Nézet‑Séguin’s musicians, and a perfect fit. The Philadelphians have succeeded Cleveland in having the most exciting First Chairs in America, and Ms. Coleman gave them all the time to strut their stuff. Either in the moody opening (with an effective offstage brass consort) or the Bernstein-like finale. In between, one was impressed with her competence, her comprehension of the titular Harlem “Renaissance” and the daring she took with the orchestra.

Again, though, it was Mr. Nézet‑Séguin who propelled the music forward, a necessary propulsion for the sometimes heavy going.

For La Mer, we had no questions. Debussy wrote this while watching England’s most placid seashore from the balcony of Eastbourne Hotel. Yet Debussy transformed those lapping unruffled waves into roiling, ferocious, angry, torrents of water. Mr. Nézet‑Séguin, in turn, transformed those notes into fantasies wrath and–miracle of miracles–retained the flowing tidal movements throughout.

A final moment for Mitsuko Uchida’s playing for Ravel’s slow movement. Literally thousands of words try to describe the ethereal quality of this tune, and what I read last night in W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz might seem awkward but I love it.

Perhaps moths dream,” he wrote on a chapter about moths, “perhaps a lettuce in the garden dreams as it looks up at the moon by night.

Ms. Uchida’s music was a welding of moon and garden and dream together.

Harry Rolnick



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