Nézet-Séguin wins more fans in Saratoga debut

Lang Lang joins the Philadelphia Orchestra to rehearse Liszt's "Piano Concerto No. 1," with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting. Philadelphia Orchestra

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Another YNS triumph?

That phrase, once used in modified form as Leonard Bernstein went from success to success, also applies to the last two weeks in the life of the music-director-designate of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

After an acclaimed Mostly Mozart Festival week in New York, Yannick Nézet-Séguin debuted at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center with his soon-to-be-orchestra and clearly won new admirers, especially at the Wednesday program featuring Lang Lang playing Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Brahms' Symphony No. 4.

At Thursday's "Italian Opera Night," the spotlight was on singers Angela Meade and Bryan Hymel, both Academy of Vocal Arts graduates, for an audience that seemed to be experiencing much of this music for the first time.

Programs were unusually ambitious for one-rehearsal summer concerts (on Friday, Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra was the opener), and Nézet-Séguin's colleagues went out of their way to support and collaborate.

Did Higdon really need to interrupt work on her new opera, Cold Mountain, to be at the Friday-morning rehearsal? No matter - there she was. Having long wanted to work with Nézet-Séguin, Lang Lang tore himself away from London (where he had been an Olympic torchbearer) to play the Liszt, in his only U.S. appearance this summer. Hymel was also getting over jet lag, having had to suddenly replace Jonas Kaufmann in Berlioz's massive Les Troyens at London's Royal Opera and later at Royal Albert Hall. And the musicians were on their toes: They greatly value their time at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, with its fine acoustics.

The Brahms symphony was something of a milestone. Nézet-Séguin has renewed concentration on Brahms this summer, with a good-not-great Symphony No. 1 in June at Verizon Hall. No. 4 looms larger because of its infamous final movement. Organized over a repeating eight-chord pattern but containing more content than the three other movements combined, it has caused many a conductor to crash and burn. The easy way out is to rush it.

But Wednesday's performance left plenty of room for profound incidental solos (particularly flutist Jeffrey Khaner's). The 20-plus micro variations packed into 10 minutes seem almost like a symphony unto themselves, with a solid sense of progression and logical contour, but plenty of portals for the music's extremes of despair and resolution.

Elsewhere in the symphony, Nézet-Séguin would occasionally try a tempo change that seemed out of character with what went before - interpretation with an all-too-capital I. But the performance also had a distinctive quality of sound well beyond the usual Philadelphia lushness, shaded with the sort of expressiveness that carries a subliminal effect you may not notice until it has passed.

A word on Lang Lang: He celebrated his 30th birthday June 14 and has settled down a bit, making his artistry all the more apparent. Most obviously, he moves less when he plays. Though Liszt is hardly a showcase for maturity, Lang Lang commanded a big and often glistening but unforced sound. His phrasing is more intensely truthful. He's staying out of mischief; I knew it would happen.

The aria evening was a mixed success. Nothing was wrong, but singers weren't consistently in their element. In Verdi's "Pace, pace, mio Dio!" soprano Meade fulfilled her considerable potential with voice, words, and meaning coming together in a fully realized operatic statement. During "Ecco: respire appena" from Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, she floated pianissimos worthy of Montserrat Caballé. For all of his baritonal timbre, Hymel is a tenor whose voice comes into its full glory in the upper reaches. He created vocal magic in "E la solita storia del pastore" from Cilea's L'arlesiana.

Though the two came together well for the Act I excerpt from Puccini's La Boheme, they were oddly matched in a long duet from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (Meade significantly overpowered Hymel). And while Meade navigated the fearsome "Sempre libera" from Verdi's La Traviata, the considerable dramatic underpinning was absent. Other Traviata excerpts didn't quite connect with the audience. Subtitles, which easily could have been shown on SPAC's video screens, would have helped.

The orchestra was full of fresh responses, and Nézet-Séguin relished the orchestral interludes, especially the "Intermezzo" from Puccini's Manon Lescaut. Schmaltzy? Sure. As it should be.


Contact David Patrick Stearns

at dstearns@phillynews.com.