Grimaud and Nézet-Séguin Collaborate in Muscular Ravel Piano Concerto

 Yannick Nézet-Séguin [photo (c) Marco Borggreve]

Yannick Nézet-Séguin [photo (c) Marco Borggreve]

The program headlined the Rotterdam Philharmonic, but I daresay most of the La Jolla Music Society’s audience Friday (Feb. 13) at Copley Symphony Hall came to see the exuberant guy on the podium: Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Since he became Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2012, the media have doted on this rising 39-year-old French-Canadian conductor.

Having exhausted their readers and followers with endless stories about Gustavo Dudamel at the Los Angeles Philharmonic—everything from his coiffure to Venezuela’s el sistema music education program—arts reporters have been eager for the next conducting superstar.

And, yes, Nézet-Séguin puts on a good show while eliciting impressive musical results from the orchestra. In constant motion darting back and forth across the podium, he slashes the air with bold, even savage straight-arm gestures that parse every shift in the music. By comparison, Riccardo Muti leading the Chicago Symphony is comatose.

Nézet-Séguin’s San Diego program proved savvy in every way: he opened with a remarkably contained and even intimate account of Maurice Ravel’s Suite from “Mother Goose,” a deliciously orchestrated version of an impressionist piano four-hand collection the composer wrote in 1908 for two young students. The Rotterdam Philharmonic’s first chair wind players displayed their most winning timbres at every turn, especially oboist Remco de Vries.  Concertmaster Marieke Blankestijn’s poignant solo in the fourth movement was the picture of wistful refinement.

Shifting gears to Ravel in his more worldly, modernist mode, Nézet-Séguin led pianist Hélène

Hélène Grimaud [photo (c) Mat Hennek/DG]

Hélène Grimaud [photo (c) Mat Hennek/DG]

Grimaud in the 1931 Piano Concerto in G Major. Grimaud is not the sort of virtuoso who charms her listeners with creamy pianissimos in between her splashy fusillades of technical bravura. Her take on the G Major Concerto emphasized its brilliant, jazz-tinged thematic acrobatics with aggressive attacks and muscular figurations.

Her Ravel was not the Parisian dandy sporting a stylish suit, as the composer invariably appeared in photos. Instead, Grimaud gave him a leather cap and a riding crop.

I appreciated the freshness of her approach to the concerto, as well as her sophisticated rubatos in solo forays that evoked the sangfroid of a jazz improviser. Nézet-Séguin found the score equally acerbic, and his orchestra provided strong, sympathetic collaboration with the soloist.

As an encore, Grimaud and Nézet-Séguin played Johannes Brahms Waltz in A-flat, Op. 39, No.15 for piano four hands.

For regulars at the Jacobs Music Center, this was the second time hearing Sergei Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony in the last five months. In October, San Diego Symphony Music Director Jahja Ling opened the current season with this symphony, a work the orchestra took on its subsequent New York City and China tour. I can barely recall the last time this major work was programmed locally prior to these two outings.

Prokofiev completed this symphony in the waning months of World War II (it was first performed in Moscow in January, 1945), and in spite of the composer’s later protestations to the contrary, many have interpreted his Fifth Symphony as a victory symphony or at least a monument to the struggles of war. Ling’s approach was somewhat darker than maestro Nézet-Séguin’s, although the Rotterdam Philharmonic certainly gave the work a robust and at times dramatic realization.

Their discipline and clean ensemble in the second movement, marked Allegro marcato but really a smart scherzo with a short, sunny trio, attested to the orchestra’s caliber. I would describe the polished string sections as less steely than contemporary British orchestras, but not as comfortably warm as their traditional central European counterparts. Rotterdam’s brass proved cohesive and unusually solid in the bass trombone and tuba range. How many times does the principal tuba receive a solo bow during the audience applause?

Their encore was a spirited section form Dmitri Shostakovich’s “The Gadfly.”

Now that Music Director Alan Gilbert has given his notice to the New York Philharmonic that he will not renew his contract with them, Nézet-Séguin’s name has surfaced among the possible candidates for this choice post. Only time will tell. He should pray that his romance with the media does not cool in the meantime.

Rotterdam Philharmonic Program

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