Philadelphia Orchestra Gets a Reboot Under New Maestro

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When Yannick Nézet-Séguin began his tenure as the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in October, his first concerts, in Philadelphia and at Carnegie Hall, featured Verdi’s Requiem.

Starting out with an epic mass for the dead may seem like an inauspicious message for an orchestra that emerged in July from a kind of near-death experience of its own in the form of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. But optimistic patrons could legitimately think of this requiem as a memorial to the orchestra’s well-publicized fiscal problems.

The reviews have underscored the orchestra’s change of course: “Though the piece had all its customary hellfire, the performance featured rarely heard, fine shades of sound that created a deeper effect,” wrote music critic David Patrick Stearns in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The New York Times and Montreal Gazette were similarly enthusiastic in their coverage.

Nézet-Séguin and Philadelphia return to Carnegie Hall on Jan. 17 in a program to be broadcast on WQXR. While the orchestra may not be entirely out of the woods financially, the ensemble should be even more attuned to the 37-year-old maestro’s podium style. Like the Verdi performances, this program should pack a dramatic punch, with Shostakovich’s dramatic Fifth Symphony, Ravel’s psychedelic La Valse and Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 2 (with Leonidas Kavakos).

Despite several major-label recordings and a 2009 debut at the Metropolitan Opera, Nézet-Séguin was still relatively unknown in the US when the Philadelphia Orchestra hired him as its eighth music director in June 2010. It wasn’t his first major orchestra job: he succeeded Valery Gergiev as music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in 2006 and became principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra the next year (he continues to hold both jobs).

If his first season is a guide, Nézet-Séguin’s musical tastes run towards large-scale symphonies (Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich) and choral epics (Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is planned for March). But beyond questions of repertoire or interpretation, he will be tasked with building enthusiasm around an ensemble where it has been in short supply since April 2011, when it declared bankruptcy. That protracted reorganization ended with a new labor deal with musicians, a scuttled planned merger with the Philly Pops, and rent concessions from the Kimmel Center, the orchestra’s landlord.

Nézet-Séguin arrives this season as the Philadelphia Orchestra is also paying homage to Leopold Stokowski, its former music director who made his debut there in 1912 at age 30. It could be an awkward bit of competition for the new conductor. But in a promotional video for the orchestra, Nézet-Séguin speaks of his admiration for his legendary predecessor's pioneering qualities – his premieres, collaborations and emphasis on visual elements. By putting new attention on these things, Nézet-Séguin says, “I am actually paying tribute to our very own past."

Below: Nézet-Séguin conducts an excerpt from Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé: