The Philadelphia Orchestra has had its share of troubles over the years, including an embarrassing brush with bankruptcy, but things sure sound like they are looking up, way up, these days.
Financial matters now seem more stable, and the hiring of a young dynamo from Montreal, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, as music director (this is his inaugural season) has sent a decidedly positive jolt into the organization.
That electricity could be easily felt Wednesday night when the Philadelphians visited the Kennedy Center for a concert presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society. I'm still feeling a little tingly from the exposure.
The program was heavy on the romanticism -- Korngold's Violin Concerto to start, with Baltimore's own Hilary Hahn as soloist; Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 to close -- but could not have been much more uplifting. There was a freshness and spontaneity in the music-making all evening.
The Korngold concerto's detractors invariably bemoan the schmaltzy, more corn-than-gold side of the piece (the composer re-used bits of his Hollywood film scores here), without noticing the ingenuity of the writing, the sincerity behind the unbridled lyricism.
Hahn's trademark sweetness of tone, purity of articulation and warmth of phrasing proved ideal for the concerto (and the solo Bach she offered as an encore). Giving the performance extra sweep was Nezet-Seguin, who provided supple partnering for the soloist and had the ensemble bringing out every shade of Korngold's vivid orchestral palette. A disarming, involving performance.
Bruckner's profound and mountainous Seventh, a work haunted by Wagner's spirit, found an ardent champion in Nezet-Seguin. Conducting from memory, he provided a strong, underlying pulse that made the long symphony seem short, even when he allowed plenty of spaciousness (the Adagio, the heart and soul of this piece, was beautifully paced).
Nezet-Seguin did not always get the pianissimos he signaled for, but he sure had no trouble igniting fortissimos. The sonic impact of the loudest passages was invariably stunning; the eruption in the Adagio after the climactic cymbal crash was but one unforgettable example.
On a technical level, the intensely focused brass made an especially grand impression. The woodwinds were a valiant, vibrant section. And if the violins were not always seamless in tone, the strings overall had plenty of the fabled "Philadelphia sound" of yore.
Throughout the performance, Bruckner's vision could be deeply savored -- just as deeply as the remarkable bond that seems to have formed quickly between Nezet-Seguin and this venerable American orchestra.