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SCRUTINY | Yannick Nézet-Séguin And The Philadelphia Orchestra Make A Triumphant Toronto Stop

By Ludwig Van on April 19, 2024

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at Koerner Hall, Toronto (Photo: Lisa Sakulensky)
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at Koerner Hall, Toronto (Photo: Lisa Sakulensky)

Florence Price: Symphony No. 4 in D Minor; Sergei Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, op. 27 – The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor. April 17, 2024, Koerner Hall.

It was a chilly, blustery night in Toronto, but the inside of Koerner Hall was ablaze with excitement for the Royal Conservatory’s debut of The Philadelphia Orchestra, on its 2024 tour of Canada. The sold-out concert featured two early 20th century pieces — one familiar, one rarely performed in Toronto, both with special meaning for the orchestra.

There were no featured soloists, which kept the focus solely on the orchestra and its conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Yannick, as he prefers to be known, the pride and joy of Canada, is a superstar in both orchestral and operatic worlds. He is Music Director, concurrently, of three prestigious orchestras — Orchestre Métropolitain, Philadelphia and the Metropolitan Opera. Not to mention his recent rise to Hollywood fame for his consulting role for the blockbuster film Maestro.

The night opened with Symphony No. 4 in D minor by American composer Florence Price. Yannick explained to the audience that The Philadelphia Orchestra has made it its mission to champion Price’s music, much of which had remained unknown until recent years. Although Price’s Symphony No. 1 won first prize in a composition competition, making her the first African American woman to have her work performed by a major symphony orchestra (the Chicago Symphony) in 1933, her subsequent works faded into obscurity, largely due to two handicaps described by Price herself: race and gender. Her Symphony No.4, written in 1945, was never performed until 2018. The Philadelphia Orchestra has since made two recordings of three of her symphonies, with one (Nos. 1 and 3) winning the Grammy Award, and the other (No. 4) receiving a nomination.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at Koerner Hall, Toronto (Photo: Lisa Sakulensky)
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at Koerner Hall, Toronto (Photo: Lisa Sakulensky)

The D-minor Symphony is full of exciting colours and harmonic invention. Eclectic elements of folk, spirituals, jazz and even a Juba dance are intricately woven into the four movements. The first movement had references to the spiritual “Wade in the Water”. One could unmistakably hear Dvorak’s “Going Home” from his New World Symphony recurring in the second movement. Other passages are reminiscent of Bruckner and Gershwin. Despite the similarities, Yannick calls this work the most personal of Price’s symphonies. “She had no reservation about her own ideas. It is her own voice.”

This piece was the perfect showcase of the orchestra’s technical brilliance. Price made sure that each section has its shining moments, and almost every instrument is assigned a solo part. Yannick deftly manipulated the playful, dance-like passages against dramatic climaxes. The ending was especially compelling as the tempo raged towards a jubilant and explosive conclusion.

The Philadelphia Orchestra had a special relationship with Sergei Rachmaninov. The composer was said to have written some of his works with the Philadelphia sound in mind. This connection extended to Rachmaninov premiering a number of his works with Philadelphia and conducting the orchestra himself in several recordings. It was therefore most fitting for the orchestra to pay tribute to this legacy by putting Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 in E Minor in the program. This piece is no stranger to Toronto audiences who tune into Classical FM. It is played every night as the theme of the show “Nocturne.”

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at Koerner Hall, Toronto (Photo: Lisa Sakulensky)
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at Koerner Hall, Toronto (Photo: Lisa Sakulensky)

Symphony No. 2, regarded as one of Rachmaninov’s best works, is filled with lush, romantic lyricism. Yannick effectively built tension amidst the gripping crescendos in the first movement. The second movement alternated between long, romantic lines and allegro passages that were bursting with urgency. The orchestra was at its technical best when it played the furiously fast tempo with impeccable uniformity. The ultra romantic third movement felt even more sensuous with Yannick’s interpretation. His deliberately slower take of the tempo and use of sostenutos prolonged the pleasure on the senses. The final movement recalled the main themes from the previous three movements. Even with the Koerner Hall acoustics, which are usually challenging for such a large orchestra to play softly, there were beautiful moments of pianissimo.

Throughout the evening, the orchestra had a rich and warm sound that flowed like liquid gold. The strings had a shimmering warmth; the woodwinds played with finesse and intuitive clarity; the percussion added fiery elements, while the brass was simply glorious.

It was mesmerizing to watch Yannick’s exuberant conducting, and the way he meticulously shaped every note like a skilled craftsman. He had an ingenious way of communicating with the orchestra with every part of his body. In turn, the orchestra responded with gusto at his every gesture.

Wednesday night’s concert was the third in the Royal Conservatory’s International Orchestras Series, which has been wildly successful and well received. We can now look forward to the next concert, in which the Czech Philharmonic under Semyon Bychkov will make its debut at Koerner Hall in December.

By Denise Lai for LvT

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