Yannick, Yaja, Jen Higdon

  • Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, cond., Yaja Wang, piano
  • Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center
  • Dec. 8-11, 2011, Review of Dec. 8 on WRTI, 90.1 fm

The program that music-director -in-waiting Yannick Nezet-Seguin chose this week was energy from the get-go. Jen Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra opened, its five movements challenging the Philadelphians and its audience to attention. Higdon’s exciting work was more rambunctious than I remember in  Nezet-Seguin’s reading; more extrovert than even the extrovert composer herself but the orchestra’s centennial commission  remains  a score of glow and substance.  Higdon tailored the concerto to the Philadelphians’ many gifts, the second movement highlights strings; the third, woodwinds; during Thursday night’s performance, I was partial to the  jam session for keyed percussion created by the final movements.   Piano, celesta, wood blocks, xlyophone, vibraphone – and more – are mysteriously evoked in this slowly escalating chiming music.

When Yaja Wang came out, her red dress warmed us. The 24- year- old pianist has warmed considerably on stage. She smiles now, looks friendlier than she did onstage a season ago. The virtuosity is unquestioned! Thursday night Wang lit into the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.  The ivories glittered.  Rachmaninoff’s chords thundered. There were elastic pauses.  The Curtis graduate, from Beijing plays like she’s hungry – for the keys.  When she’d gobbled the variations – except the popular slow theme –  the house roared its approval.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 2 in C Minor, Opus 17 was the second half. The “Little Russian.” It opens with the brass proving wonderfully stalwart. The strings take things down a notch or two for a gentle march. There’s a graciousness to the young work. And optimism. As they had during the Higdon,  the families of the orchestra showed their prowess. When it was over, the house was electric. After the bows, Yannick led a bit of The Nutcracker. Perfect.

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