Philadelphia Orchestra gets down to business (at last)

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Music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra

With any number of galas, special events, and community-service activities out of the way, the Philadelphia Orchestra settled into what it was created for: playing concerts of substantial classics for which Friday’s Verizon Hall audience seemed unusually hungry.

No matter that the program began with a dense, unfamiliar organ/orchestral work by a previously unknown composer, continued with the durable Emanuel Ax seeming not quite himself in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 and a Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 with some tentative opening moments. The reaction, in consecutive order, was excited, charmed, and delirious. Great music often has built-in quality control: Even if you only get 30 percent of a new piece, you still have a lot. Ax is a model of cultivated elegance even when he’s less-than-fully courting profundity.

And Tchaikovsky? Of the three great Tchaikovsky symphonies, this one is the most emphatically direct from first minute with its blazing semi-suicidal fanfare. The piece seems to start from a place of hopelessness, scaling down into a pianissimo that, in this performance, seemed more indistinct than anything else. Once the movement got underway, music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin seemed not to have anything all that distinctive up his sleeve. Time and again, though, he has proven himself as the master of building phrases that escalate upon one another, and in this case was abetted by the subtle but insistent timpani of Angela Zator Nelson and the double basses acting as the musical truth tellers amid the angst of the upper strings.

Soon, the performance was in the thick of Tchaikovskian hysteria at its most compelling with wind-instrument solos that all spoke volumes. Even the greatest conductors let this movement sag; not Nézet-Séguin. The second movement built differently – with each new musical plateau announcing itself with its own weighty pronouncement. The famous pizzicato movement flowed like the wind. The final movement nearly achieved what I consider the hallmark of great Soviet-era Tchaikovsky performances: unbridled passion but with the cleanness and precision of Mozart.

Is Mozart’s final piano concerto elegiac, or do we just hear it that way because it is his last? Ax walked the middle ground in that regard. Yet even with Nézet-Séguin exploring corners of often-forgotten counterpoint, Ax had an odd lack of impetus, particularly in the final movement, when tempos became relaxed but without much apparent purpose.

The Wayne Oquin organ/orchestra work Resilience came as a hearty surprise, even for me, who had done some background work on this 39-year-old composer from Houston and found him to be ceaselessly agreeable, but not writing anything that sent me running back for more. But this piece warranted an instant encore. It’s solidly constructed and has an eventful narrative that makes the piece – like Strauss’ Don Juan – great for opening a concert.

Organ soloist Paul Jacobs showed great taste and precision in accentuating and contrasting the instrument with the orchestra. Even though the cadenza is one of the quietest you’re likely to encounter, Jacobs made it speak with clarity. The performance is part of a larger Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ Experience – the latest attempt to bring the instrument more into the mainstream. Smart new works that speak to our time seem to be the way to go.

The program is repeated Saturday and Sunday at the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall. Information: www.philorch.org or 215-893-1999.