Review: Yannick Nézet-Séguin at Mostly Mozart

Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin Wednesday night in Avery Fisher Hall. Photo: Richard Termine.

NEW YORK — The Philadelphia Orchestra’s search for its eighth music director has entered a particularly treacherous stretch. Conductors’ datebooks being what they are, filled three or four years in advance, the orchestra will have to act soon. But it doesn’t have quite enough information on several of the candidates. Rock, hard place.
The search committees have vowed that no one will be hired until more than one visit to the podium — an unimpressive act of restraint when you consider how critical a decision this is.
And yet here at the Mostly Mozart Festival last night was the young Montréaler who is the current front-runner: Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
He has conducted in Philadelphia once, and his next visit to the orchestra comes this December. But as the Philadelphians settled in for their annual residency in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., the spotlight shone revealingly on Nézet-Séguin’s personality a couple of hundred miles south at Lincoln Center.
This year’s festival in fact can be seen as a study course in ways the search will go, could go, or should have gone. Following the “could go” line of thought, the orchestra might fall back on experienced conductors the next immediate level down, such as the Minnesota Orchestra’s Osmo Vänskä, who takes a Mostly Mozart program next week.
In the category of young conductors the orchestra should have been hearing is Robin Ticciati, the 26-year-old Simon Rattle protégé. His concert Sunday at Lincoln Center with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment will mark his U.S. debut.
The orchestra did get in on the ground floor with Nézet-Séguin, who was making his New York debut in this program of Mendelssohn, Stravinsky and Mozart with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra; he makes his Metropolitan Opera bow with Carmen three weeks after Philadelphia, and then, a month later, has his first encounter with the Vienna Philharmonic.
Whether he would sit still long enough to say yes to Philadelphia is an open question.
But should we want him?
You might think that at 34, Nézet-Séguin is still developing, and perhaps he is. But other conductors are fully formed at even younger ages, and at this point what we have is a conductor who is a complete natural on the podium; an unrelentingly kinetic visual presence; and a musical thinker whose ideas range from limited to moderately interesting.
In Mozart’s D Minor Piano Concerto the conductor was joined by pianist Nicholas Angelich (who will also be his partner for the Philadelphia Orchestra December concerts). Angelich is a matter-of-fact, even emphatic player. His solid sound was often a source of elation, but rarely poetry. I was grateful for the Beethoven cadenzas, where the pianist’s emotional range had a chance to develop. Nézet-Séguin was a spirited but hardly meticulous ensemble-keeper.
This was a program of mostly not Mozart, and all the more illuminating for it. Nézet-Séguin programmed Stravinsky’s Pulcinella — not in the suite for orchestra alone, but in the rarely done ballet score complete with mezzo, tenor and bass. Stravinsky’s handling of melodies written by (perhaps) Pergolesi is a heightened dramatic experience with the presence of vocalists, and made more so by the rich characterizations by mezzo Karen Cargill, tenor Toby Spence and bass Matthew Rose.
Nézet-Séguin followed the Italian theme with a Mendelssohn Symphony No. 4 (the “Italian”), taken at some points at tempos too fast to appreciate details of dynamics and phrase-shaping. You have to credit the orchestra for holding it together. The conductor achieved a thoughtful personal imprint at a certain arrival point in the third movement. Lovely. And the last movement was a furious sprint that, despite running like the wind, was still crisp and controlled and untimately worked well.
The podium choreography was elaborate, and some of it, happily, even served a musical purpose.