Philly Orchestra features Hilary Hahn and a lavish 'Firebird'

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Violinist Hilary Hahn tackled a Vieuxtemps with such gusto that it blew the socks off the audience - prematurely.

'How about one more movement?"

Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin couldn't resist making that faux-casual suggestion when the Friday audience erupted into full applause after three out of four movements in Henri Vieuxtemps' Violin Concerto No. 4.

The audience lapse was understandable: This concerto rarely turns up in the United States, and guest violinist Hilary Hahn automatically gets points for taking a chance on it. Though the concerto has an almost operatic sense of narrative - as in Berlioz's Harold in Italy, the soloist is engaged in an ongoing soliloquy - it's also a virtuoso piece, especially the third movement. So when Hahn played it with her customary technical flair, who could not applaud?

Not the sturdiest piece of its kind, the 1850 concerto has an oddly long orchestral introduction, then-fashionable moments of Gothicism, a near-quotation from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, plus an apotheosis led by the harp. It could feel musty and distant, although Hahn and Nézet-Séguin performed the piece as though they believed in it 100 percent. Make that 90 percent. The second movement, marked "Adagio religioso," is most powerful when the soloist goes to a vulnerable point of self-revelation. Hahn didn't get there.

The near-full crowd at Verizon Hall seemed to feel particularly good about Nézet-Séguin, aided by a letter read at the beginning of the concert from Mayor Nutter congratulating the conductor on being named Musical America's Artist of the Year. On top of that, the second half was Stravinsky's The Firebird heard in complete form with a lavish orchestration in which the harp count is up to three.

The fairy tale scenario in which a magic firebird is a wild card in a tussle between good and evil took on greater importance than in the abbreviated, often-heard concert suites. Nézet-Séguin began with a contained, homogeneous treatment of the rich sound to establish the mythical setting of the piece (an enchanted garden). Only later did the music's three-dimensional physicality come leaping out, first from side doors, then in a frontal assault.

Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra can take ample credit for giving those shocks a renewed power, but the best explanation for the audience's explosively positive reaction is that the music means so much more when heard in its narrative context. The music is of consistently high quality; the sometimes-neglected portions often seem more interesting than the "greatest hits" heard in the many concert suites.

Contrast that with the suite from Bizet's Carmen that began the concert. Though the music stands on its own and was well played, Carmen without words, characters, and stabbings just isn't Carmen. So I hereby declare myself the enemy of all suites that turn big, wonderful works into smaller, less-meaningful ones.

Be forewarned.

Additional performance: 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets: $50-$145. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.

Also: Christmas Kids' Spectacular, 11:30 a.m. Saturday. Tickets: $20-$48.

dstearns@phillynews.com.