Monday, October 25, 2010

young guns

Friday, October 23 2010

Berlin Philharmonic
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Yefim Bronfman, piano

Messiaen, Les Offrandes oubliees
Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 2
Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique

Last weekend concluded the Berlin Philharmonic’s month of debuting young conducting impresarios—Tomáš Netopil (32), Eivind Gullberg Jensen (38), Andris Nelsons (32), and finally Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s (35). Though not the youngest, and not the most impressive, Nézet-Séguin may have been the most anticipated.

It’s easy to chalk up all of Nézet-Séguin’s fame to his relatively young age, good lucks, and charismatic conducting. This past season in the U.S. it seemed like he was the prodigal son, the heir to the Throne of Dudamel—a triumphant Carmen at the Met, a well-reviewed tour with his Rotterdam Philharmonic, and finally his appointment to the grand Philadelphia Orchestra. So YNS’s first experience at the podium of the Berlin Philharmonic almost seems like an afterthought, a confirmation of his already huge success.

But it also gives the ideal opportunity to evaluate the conductor on his own terms. We know that the Berlin Philharmonic can play Berlioz, Prokofiev, and Messiaen with their eyes closed. But when a 35-year-old newbie steps up to the plate, do they open their eyes? And more importantly, do they respond to what he’s doing up there?

The answer was yes, for the most part. After a somewhat sleepy first half, the orchestra warmed to his conducting and played a pulverizing Symphonie Fantastique. Berlioz’s lovesick symphonic poem is a young man’s piece and usually benefits from a youthful interpretation. YNS created a sense of effortless flow in the opening Reveries – Passions, a push-and-pull of blissful strings. Each climax was more explosive than the last, the orchestra giving just as much power as they did to Shostakovich last week. YNS’s background with the Montreal Symphony was most evident in Un bal, which glowed with French, buoyant geniality.

Of course the orchestra, not the conductor, is the star in the Symphonie Fantastique (and, I guess, in all music). The wonderfully blooming English horn duet and sheen of silvery strings in Scene aus champs, as well as the horn grotesquerie of the March to the Scafford, once again demonstrated the ability of the Berlin Phil to make themselves at home in any aspect of any repertory. And the finale was a raucous delight, with a bubbly and maniacal Eb clarinet solo almost stealing all the glory away from YNS and the orchestra. Smartly, the giant bells which toll the witch’s Sabbath were placed on a separate balcony, producing a horrifying effect with the brass solemnly intoning the Dies Irae melody.

Messiaen’s Les Offrandes oubliees and Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto comprised the first half of the program (what are the odds of hearing Les Offrandes twice in one year?). The Messiaen, a spell of still, slowly unfurling melodies, with a riotous interlude, was exquisitely played. But in that Rite of Spring-esque middle section, I got the feeling that YNS was overexerting himself—his wild gestures were not followed by the orchestra. The Philharmonic also seemed to go into an auto-pilot accompaniment mode for the Prokofiev, a generally boring and bombastic showpiece. Again, YNS’s inefficient gestures failed to elicit a compelling performance from the orchestra. Yefim Bronfman, though, was in fine form, his meaty playing matching the powerhouse quality of the concerto—a stupefying cadenza in the opening movement showed the brawler at his best.

The audience went crazy over YNS after the Symphonie, giving the first standing ovation I’ve seen in Berlin, and even calling him back after the orchestra had left the stage. With the richness of the second half, I can’t blame them. But the Prokofiev made clear that he is not yet a fully developed talent—hopefully his upcoming tenure with Philadelphia will be a learning opportunity for both him and the orchestra.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Edit: Wow, this is super embarassing. I spelled his name wrong like 6 times in a row. Corrected---Thanks anonymous commenter.


  1. Who is this Nezez-Sagain guy? You heard Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

  2. I have found your blog by chance, and I am really enjoying the articles - as well as missing the musical scene in Berlin terribly! Will forward some pieces to my colleague in Berlin, keep it up posting (any chance of writing about Pogorelich in Nov?), v

  3. thanks! possibly go to pogorelich, chopin ain't really my thang though.

  4. You misspelled embarrassing, too. ;-) Don't be super embarrassed.