Sunday’s Philadelphia Orchestra performance, like many others, came with an extra: a postlude with the soloist and three other musicians playing the Schumann Piano Quartet Opus 47 in E-flat major.
Seeing Hilary Hahn, Natalie Zhu, Yumi Kendall, and Che-Hung Chen march joyfully onto the stage of Verizon Hall brought back memories of a gleeful BBC chamber concert of the Schubert Trout Quintet with exuberant young stars of 1969: Daniel Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Jacqueline du Pré, and Zubin Mehta which you can watch here.
The Philadelphia Orchestra performance began with the jazzy Suite to Thomas Adès’ opera Powder her face, a United States premiere co-commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted this upbeat number with grace and energy, but the initial drive of the lively beginning dwindles as Adès failed to end the piece early enough. Would the opera itself have kept the momentum going?
Hilary Hahn’s grace and mastery in her rendition of the Leonard Bernstein Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for solo violin, strings, harp, and percussion were well matched in the orchestras’ refined skills in bringing their dynamic level so low that Hahn was able to project above their sound with a mere whisper of sound.
Hahn also played an encore of a Giga from the third Partita by J. S. Bach with a controlled tone and thoughtful phrasing. She seemed to understand the acoustics of Verizon Hall and did not push; she merely allowed the sound to come out of her violin like a genie being coaxed out of a lamp.
The clarinet solo played by Ricardo Morales at the beginning of the Sibelius Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Opus 39, also sailed to the third tier and Maestro Nézet-Séguin brought the orchestra in from a pianissimo, the glorious full but quiet sound which is the trademark of the fabulous Philadelphians. The sound in the back circle of the stage – which in past performances has often boomed out – was amazingly controlled. Don Liuzzi started timpani rolls at an almost imperceptible even purr and brought them slowly up to forte. Carol Jantsch, tuba, was placed slightly behind the trombones, had some glorious solos, especially in the Finale (quasi una fantasia). There were so many beautiful and delicate moments throughout the Sibelius, including a masterful flute trill which David Cramer seemed to pass off to Ricardo Morales’ clarinet. Muted trumpets and French horns wove seamlessly into the texture of Sibelius’ score.
The audience who stayed for the postlude was still excited from the first concert, including my five-year-old neighbor on the front row. Natalie Zhu, who studied piano at Curtis and Hilary Hahn, her classmate and frequent collaborator, were joined by Zhu’s husband, Che-Hung Chen, viola, and Yumi Kendall, cello.
Zhu started the slow theme of the first movement quite softly, looking for the bloom of sound which is so dead on the Verizon Hall stage that musicians can hardly hear themselves, but she slowly dug in, maintaining her brilliant pianissimo playing but inserting a bolder sound as she found her bearings. Hahn stayed below the radar, listening to her companions and rarely bringing her violin lines above the group dynamically. The Scherzo was a daring dash at breakneck speed which Zhu played with amazing delicacy. Even at her presto speed, the notes were clear, crisply staccato, yet not harsh. When Che-Hung Chen played the theme on the viola, his bold attack had a dark resonance and a clear melodic arc. Yumi Kendall, who is one of the most physically graceful humans I have ever seen, managed to retune her cello C string to B-flat in the midst of the second half of the Andante Cantabile with a mere ping to test the note was hardly audible even thought I was less than twelve feet away. Many cellists bring out a second instrument already tuned down, but Kendall proved that a master can deftly retune without fuss.
The performance was more than the music – it was four friends who find that although they spend their lives practicing, they actually enjoy playing music together.
[The Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kimmel Center] December 10, 2017; philorch.org