February 24, 2015

Philharmonic shows true colors

With all the hoopla surrounding the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and Symphony Chorus’s much-anticipated performances of Mozart’s Requiem with Riccardo Muti this week, it couldn't have been all too easy for the Rotterdam Philharmonic’s arrival in Chicago—the penultimate stop on its nine-concert tour—to fly under the radar. The Dutch orchestra’s Symphony Hall debut came, after all, only a few hours after Muti had concluded a matinee performance of the Requiem.

Again, it could’ve gone unnoticed. But a healthy crowd filled Symphony Hall for the Philharmonic’s Friday concert, and under lively music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Philharmonic itself was anything but forgettable. In fact, the ensemble’s performance, which included a solo appearance by the ever-innovative, ever-emotive pianist Hélène Grimaud, proved to be among the greatest delights this reviewer has had at Symphony Hall all season.

According to Nézet-Séguin, the secret lies in the Philharmonic’s sonic palette—one that isn’t afraid to let its colors run. Before a 2013 Proms performance, Nézet-Séguin, who turns 40 this year, claimed that the singularity of the Philharmonic’s sound may have an indirect link to the geography of the Netherlands itself: it straddles the French-German language border while remaining distinct from both regions. “The French color would be very delicate, very refined. And then you have the German color, which is a darker sound, maybe produced by something more relaxed and longer,” Nézet-Séguin said in a pre-concert interview. “The Dutch sit a little bit in between, I would say, but with an extra brightness, or primary color.”

And he’s right: the Rotterdam Philharmonic does indeed have a unique sound, one that is preternaturally resonant, silky, and defined by a clear, glassy timbre. It was a sound well-equipped to coax the aquarelle colorings out of the program’s Ravel-dominated first half.

The Mother Goose Suite which began the program is something of a rarity in concert halls. It began as a piano duo, then was re-orchestrated into the ballet from which the suite is derived. Each brief movement references a popular children’s fable, but the references are closer to impressions than to lushly illustrated narratives in the style of, say, Richard Strauss. Perhaps the most vivid of these sketches was the fourth movement, or “Conversations of Beauty and the Beast.” The contrabassoon figures—meant to represent the Beast—were fittingly grotesque, blaring in stark contrast to the tender, bejeweled waltz carried by the rest of the orchestra. At the end of the movement, lo and behold, the hideous monster characterized by the snarling contrabassoon reveals itself to be a handsome prince, his transformation cued by glowing descending harmonics on a solo violin. Tender compositional touches like this were beautifully relayed by the Philharmonic, and the piece’s more intimate instrumentation (with a relatively small woodwind section and no brass, save for two horns) showcased the orchestra members’ individual musicianship.

After the suite, Grimaud presented a remarkably introspective interpretation of Ravel’s Piano Concerto. Though she trotted alongside Nézet-Séguin and the Philharmonic’s tempos with ease during the concerto’s rollicking opening bars, when the orchestra peeled away for her first cadenza, Grimaud ground the tempo to a near halt, as she would with subsequent unaccompanied entrances. But her eccentricities were in no way arbitrary: In fact, Grimaud’s conception brought a new layer of depth to the concerto, every rubato evoking a wistfulness, an aching nostalgia this concerto didn’t know it had. Nor were her tempos so ponderous that they lacked momentum; even in the sweeping second movement, marked “Adagio assai,” Grimaud gracefully produced a steady, singing legato. This pensive soliloquizing contrasted gorgeously with the razzle-dazzle of the third movement, which brought the concerto to a rumbustious and memorable close.

After the Philharmonic had so masterfully executed the works of Ravel, this reviewer was curious to see how the ensemble would present the change in material. But the orchestra made a transition as dramatic as that from the light rosé of Ravel to the cabernet darkness of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 seem effortless. This symphony, written by the composer near the end of World War II, was significantly heavier fare, but the orchestra tackled it with verve, lending the merciless ostinato passages in the symphony’s most furious, hysterical moments a Shostakovichian rawness. Even good musicians, after all, need to know when to sound ugly.

It was Shostakovich, in fact, that was played as the evening’s encore. Nézet-Séguin selected the cheeky and effusive “Folk Festival” from the 1955 Soviet film The Gadfly, rounding out the program with the bite-sized crowd-pleaser.

Nézet-Séguin himself—namely his athletic finesse and seemingly unquenchable exuberance for the repertoire—must be credited here. Though not a conductor whose style possesses much physical subtlety, he nonetheless commands a tight, meticulous delicacy from the Philharmonic in performance.

Before the encore, Nézet-Séguin thanked the audience profusely for hosting the Chicago debut of his beloved “European orchestra.” He was met with ecstatic cheers. One can only hope that Chicago will have the pleasure of hosting this particular European orchestra again soon.