Sooner or later, war is likely to erupt in any major Christopher Rouse work, and in his new Organ Concerto, it happens right on time and with an intriguing sense of purpose.
This co-commission by the Philadelphia Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, and Los Angeles Philharmonic had its world premiere this week at the Kimmel Center. The Friday performance under music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin revealed some of the composer's most satisfying music, but not for typical reasons. It started triple forte - not unexpected for this master of orchestral extremes - though what followed in the first movement left me wanting more.
The second slow movement, however, found an unexpectedly fascinating middle ground with a downright lyrical opening - a soliloquy of sorts - with organist Paul Jacobs accompanied by warm, cozy strings. Almost inevitably, the lower brass intervened ominously. An organ-timpani duet was so indescribably itself, you want to hold onto it and demand, "What exactly are you saying?" The passage returned, like an atonal, upside-down marching song, one that clearly seems to know where it's going but wants to leave you speculating.
Then, in the third movement, orchestra and organ moved into all-out mayhem, of which Rouse is also the master. It's a piece that puts its ideas first and organ display second, which is ultimately more convincing than the program's opener, Samuel Barber's Toccata festiva, which has a lot of exhilarating moments, but which shows the composer pushing himself to into ultraextroverted music that he could write but that wasn't where he lived.
The all-organ program celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ, with the Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 in the second half, a piece Nézet-Séguin has recorded twice (in 2006 and 2014), but not with the best features of Friday's Philadelphia Orchestra outing.
The piece itself can seem about as deep as a bottlecap, though Nézet-Séguin gave the slow introduction a great sense of mystery. The first allegro moderato section can seem to putter to a close, but the orchestra's wind soloists gave their two-note motifs an eloquent gravity I'd never previously heard. Elsewhere, the performance was a romp with masterfully built climaxes and meticulous orchestral balances.
Both in Saint-Saëns and Rouse, organist Jacobs delivered subtle shifts in sound that had an infallible sense of rightness with the music at hand. He also let it rip with a crisp, fast, high-virtuosity encore, Widor's "Toccata" from his Symphony No. 5. The audience was suitably wowed.
Additional performance: 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets: $40-$147. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.