Rotterdam Philharmonic shimmers under Nézet-Séguin

Sat Feb 21, 2015 at 10:52 am

By Tim Sawyier

Yanick Nezet-Seguin conducted the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra Friday night at Symphony Center. Photo: Hans van der Woerd
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra Friday night at Symphony Center. Photo: Hans van der Woerd

The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra under music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin came to town Friday night at Symphony Center, marking both the orchestra and conductor’s Chicago debuts.

The evening opened with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, which served as a worthy calling card for the gifted Dutch players. Limpid wind solos adorned the opening “Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty,” Nézet-Séguin imbuing the ensuing “Tom Thumb” with inflections that emphasized the movement’s expressive peaks. The pentatonic “Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas” featured more laudable solo turns from the principal winds.

Contrabassoonist Hans Wisse held up his end of the “Conversations of Beauty and the Beast” playing with an appropriately feral tone, though errant harmonics in the violin solo that represents his character’s transformation into a prince made that metamorphosis more dubious. The closing “Enchanted Garden” featured lush, unified section string playing evocative of Nézet-Séguin’s better-known American ensemble, the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The evening continued with more Ravel as Hélène Grimaud joined the orchestra for the Piano Concerto in G. Grimaud is a formidable artist, but her reading of this particular concerto felt off the mark. Given the work’s pungent, jazzy harmonies and orchestration, it is easy to forget that the composer himself said that piece is “a concerto in the truest sense of the word…written very much in the same spirit as those of Mozart,” which should inform the soloist’s rendering.

Helene Grimaud. Photo: Mat Henneck
Hélène Grimaud. Photo: Mat Henneck

In the opening solos of the first movement Grimaud’s melodic line was frequently lost in her left-hand accompaniment, which she punctuated with arbitrary accents, and the final cadenza came off as a structure-less wash of notes. Throughout the extended piano solo that opens the slow movement, Grimaud played the long melody out of sync with its accompaniment, an effective device in some contexts, but not in music as pure and simple as this.

A stricter sense of pulse returned in the sparkling filigrees later in the movement, but unfortunately these combined with the RPO’s robust string sections to drown out the glorious English horn solo that is the emotional summit of the work. The finale was more impressive with thrilling scherzando sections that showed Grimaud at her best.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 constituted the second half. The expansive first movement was well-paced and showcased the RPO’s wind players channeling their string colleagues in achieving a remarkably luminous blend. In the anxious, driving second movement the winds and brass were perhaps a bit too genteel—never really wailing, snarling, or rasping as this music sometimes call for—but otherwise the orchestra skillfully navigated the movement’s schizoid alterations of character.

This affective sensibility continued in the Adagio, which managed to sound at once both amorous and tragic. The movement’s almost atomic climax was leveling, making the hushed return of the movement’s delicate opening theme sound all the more vulnerable.

In the bustling energetic finale, principal clarinetist Julien Hervé played the recurring main theme with freewheeling élan, and the RPO’s string sections matched him in terms of elegance and accuracy if not always in spirit.

After a well-deserved standing ovation, Nézet-Séguin led the orchestra in Shostakovich’s “Folk Festival” from The Gadfly as a euphoric encore, which featured scintillating woodwind pyrotechnics and ended the evening with a spirit more unambiguously jubilant than that of the Prokofiev’s final bars.

Symphony Center Presents’ orchestra series concludes April 24 with Myung-Whun Chung leading the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra in music of Beethoven and Brahms.; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Rotterdam Philharmonic shimmers under Nézet-Séguin”

  1. Posted Mar 04, 2015 at 5:35 am by Kaspar Snikkers

    Dear Mr Sawyier,

    Thanks for the wonderful review of our concert in Chicago and for even mentioning the contrabassoon solo in Ravel’s Mother Goose suite.
    Unfortunately Hans Wisse, the contrabassoonist of the Rotterdam Philharmonic was ill, so I replaced him on tour in the US and I played the solo.

    Kind regards,
    Kaspar Snikkers

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