The Philadelphia Orchestra's dress-to-kill program on its soon-to-start European tour was previewed Wednesday at Verizon Hall in what was also the close of Yannick Nézet-Séguin's third season as music director. The show illustrated his way of taking smart, middling chances and drawing the best from those around him.
The world premiere of Nico Muhly's Mixed Messages showed the composer, in his first wholly new piece for the orchestra, eager to wow the audience with all the resources the orchestra offers. Lisa Batiashvili, a violinist of depth, was bound to play a searing Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1.
But the Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 3 gave pause. Many listeners clearly heard it as a great piece (myself included). Yet the overall reception suggests that the symphony was a slight letdown. Maybe subscribers are having a hangover from Bernstein's Mass? Or continuing the Rachmaninoff piece's history of ambivalent reception, dating back to its 1936 Philadelphia Orchestra premiere?
The composer answered his detractors in this piece - while also showing an impressive evolution, a more economical, less effusive manner than in previous work. So many motifs question and answer one another, or build organically on what has come before (in the manner of Ravel) that Nézet-Séguin couldn't resist treating it like chamber music. With exceptional clarity, he charted the spatial trajectory of the motifs as they travel through orchestra.
So much variety revealed itself in scale, texture, and tempo variation that the symphony perhaps didn't have the cohesion of safer interpretations. But I'll take unsafe any day, especially when the incident solos are played with such soul.
Violinist Batiashvili was never reckless in Shostakovich, but she continually pushed the piece toward maximum expressivity, not in the confessional manner of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg but in a way that seemed to burn from within. The big cadenza that ushers in the finale, dramatizing a massive mental meltdown while never losing its musical through-line, was a concert in itself. The frenetically-paced final movement seemed to go as fast as the music possibly could, with orchestra and soloist playing as if a single entity.
Muhly's Mixed Messages has an intriguing title - but there's nothing murky in this knock-out orchestral showpiece that does the work of a Berlioz overture but in 21st-century post-minimalist terms. A bedrock of propulsive rhythms enjoys playful counterpoint with whatever is unfolding on top, all orchestrated in a quasi-Rachmaninoff sound envelope. The orchestra is still wrapping its fingers around it. But Muhly has written a piece that weds dazzling invention with practical function.