The Philadelphia Orchestra powders its face - flatteringly

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Hilary Hahn and Yannick Nezet–Seguin bow after performing Bernstien’s Serenade at the Kimmel Center on Thursday.

Bernstein, Sibelius, Hilary Hahn, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin were the audience magnets at this week’s Philadelphia Orchestra subscription concerts. But the curiosity on the program was a half-hour suite from the Thomas Ades opera Powder Her Face, heard in its U.S. premiere Thursday at the Kimmel Center, and received with respect if not affection.

Though the opera caused a sensation in 1995 and made the career of composer Ades (whose latest, The Exterminating Angel, played this season at the Metropolitan Opera), this pitiless look at a hypersexual duchess in postwar England has made the rounds and is wearing out its welcome (I used to like it; I don’t remember why).  But the suite, which was co-commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, is a significant big-orchestra rethinking of the chamber-size original — not just some cut-and-paste reprise. It stands well on its own, maybe better than the opera.

The suite’s orchestration is the work of the more mature Ades, giving high-glamour orchestras such as Philadelphia’s much to work with, inspiring a level of playing that the original opera isn’t likely to receive in the theater. Rightly, the composer seized upon the numerous dance echoes in the opera, from foxtrot to tango, refracted through a woozy, warped-mirror lens, each episode flowing seamlessly into the other.

Not only did Nézet-Séguin deliver a compelling performance, he gave Ades a sympathetic bedfellow with Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium), whose individual movements represent varying discourse on love, but more probingly than Ades’ more arch, detached look at the randy duchess of Powder Her Face. The 36-year-old Bernstein was more inquisitively youthful than the cynical, world-weary 24-year-old Ades, merging the pop and symphonic sides of his personality with breezy
melodies, a rambunctious scherzo, a slow movement with some of the tenderest music he ever wrote, and concluding it all with a great sense of musical celebration.

I’m not sure if soloist Hahn, in her more emotionally reserved younger years, would’ve given herself over to the piece so completely as she did on Thursday. Even her tone quality took on a radiance I hadn’t previously heard from her. Overall, the performance wasn’t yet all it could be. The deliberate tempos of the first movement weren’t unusual, but in this performance, they didn’t really account for themselves. But my guess is the piece will wow audiences at the Saturday and Sunday repeat performances.

Nézet-Séguin  hasn’t conducted much Sibelius here, but his performance of the Symphony No. 1 was a knockout — certainly among the strongest performances yet from him and the orchestra. In the program notes, Nézet-Séguin talked about how Sibelius seems to be drawing from the world of Tchaikovsky, which accounts for the particularly vibrant colors he found in the score. Every gesture bristled with purpose. Also, some of composer’s  quirkier movement endings were treated with good hair-trigger timing that has sometimes eluded Nézet-Séguin in other Sibelius encounters. So convincing was the performance that the music’s stature was elevated. This was no “practice symphony” but emerged as something far more personal than the popular (and more bombastically patriotic) Symphony No. 2.

The Philadelphia Orchestra repeats its program at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kimmel Center. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.