In France, sunshine, ovations, and a bell

One of the orchestra's three pop-up concerts on Saturday in Lyon, France. Some locations proved more challenging than others. (Jan Regan/The Philadelphia Orchestra)

LYON, France - Cheering audiences, rhythmic clapping, stamping feet, and other signs of adoration on its Europe 2015 tour don't excuse the Philadelphia Orchestra from the front lines of music outreach. The morning after the orchestra's raucously successful Lyon debut, players took to streets that, at least on Saturday, could be a bit mean.

Three contingents set up shop to play chamber music, the most civilized setting being the courtyard of the Lyon Museum of Fine Arts, which offered acoustics-enhancing walls and appreciative tour-group audiences who not only stopped to listen but, between movements, talked about family members who had attended Temple University. The most conventional venue was a café up the hill, where violinist Phil Kates kept listeners alert with some mildly dissonant Bartok.

But across Louis Pradel Square, a string quartet played next door to an argumentative colony of homeless people. And their dogs. Plus passersby who mocked the music with exaggerated ballet movements. The programming - Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 1 Op. 12 - was ambitious, and that's what saved the day amid police sirens and cranky pedestrians who didn't like the players blocking the sidewalk and shimmied between them as they performed. Still, there was vigorous applause.

"That was a standing ovation, considering there were no chairs," violinist Paul Arnold said.

"But whether you're in a garbage dump or a concert hall . . . this music is truly a joy to play," violinist Juliette Kang added.

Though far from home, the players weren't entirely among strangers. Some connected with old Curtis Institute classmates. Violinist Jenny Gilbert - sister of New York Philharmonic conductor Alan Gilbert and concertmistress of the Orchestre National de Lyon - arranged for fellow alum Hai-Ye Ni to borrow a cello for the Saturday morning performance when Ni's instrument was accidentally shipped ahead to Paris for that night's performance.

With seven concerts done and some of the more important ones - Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam, London - still ahead, Lyon marked the part of the tour when the players start doing laundry with shower gel in hotel bathrooms and Skype-ing with pets back home. It's no picnic, even if it looked like one when music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin took an onboard selfie of the orchestra at the end of Friday's Dortmund-to-Lyon flight.

The captain had just finished his thank-you-for-flying announcement when Nézet-Séguin went on the loudspeaker and said, "This is your other captain . . . heh heh heh." Less than 24 hours later, the selfie had more than 2,000 likes on his and the orchestra's Facebook pages. On the road, the ebullient conductor is the same in a tedious airport security line as he is onstage. When you hear an explosion of laughter from the players, it's usually precipitated by Nézet-Séguin.

Everyone's spirits soared when the cold drizzle of Dortmund gave way to brilliant sunshine in Lyon. The concert there was the focal point of ancillary activities that included a meeting between business and university leaders from the Rhone-Alpes Region and the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, an ambitious trade relationship that dates to Gov. Ed Rendell.

In the concert hall, a replica of the original Liberty Bell - from the Fonderie Paccard in Annecy, which has made 50 or more for the U.S. government since 1950 - sat in the lobby. In exchange for a donation to UNICEF, anyone could ring it, producing an imposing sound with an expansive 30-second sound-decay time that had people fleeing with their fingers in their ears.

Many of the musicians were visiting Lyon, a gastronomic paradise set between two rivers, for the first time and couldn't believe they had missed something so lovely. This pleasurable vibe showed in Friday's performance, when Emanuel Ax gave one of his most introspective readings yet of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 slow movement, sometimes pushing it to the very edge of eloquent audibility.

On Saturday night at Paris' historic art-nouveau Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where the Brahms Symphony No. 3 won its best audience response by far, the acoustics had an interesting impact on the lush Philadelphia sound. It's a dry, truth-telling hall that has influenced French orchestral sound for decades, and its almost merciless clarity unmasked a cross-section of harmonies that revealed the tautness beneath the orchestra's sonic surfaces. Oboist Richard Woodhams, an artistic descendant of that paragon of Gallic oboists, Marcel Tabiteau, sounded particularly at home. If this was a test, the orchestra aced it.

The more forgiving environs of Dortmund - where Nézet-Séguin is being given rock-star treatment during his three-year artist-in-residence stint - had an off night Thursday. Nothing was out of place, but the scathingly bitter subtext of Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 was missing. You just can't go there every single night.

Nézet-Séguin's on-tour default seems to be speed, at least in the Dortmund performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5. The piece can become so rushed that musical events begin crowding one another, and as sections of the orchestra leap into their intended slots, the playing can feel unduly aggressive.

Yet on Thursday, the second movement warmed progressively, starting with Jennifer Montone's creamy tone in the famous horn solo. And then came any number of wind solos, phrased in such a personal way that the individual musicians enjoyed their least-mediated communication with the audience.

Given the obligatory bouquet at the end of the concert, Nézet-Séguin sniffed it deeply and repeatedly, then presented it to Montone. Judging from the cheers, he did the right thing.


dstearns@phillynews.com