Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Gabriela Lena Frank
Pachamama Meets an Ode [world premiere]
Symphony No.9 in D-minor, Op.125 (Choral)
Angel Blue (soprano), Rihab Chaieb (mezzo-soprano), Matthew Polenzani (tenor), Ryan Speedo Green (bass-baritone)
Philadelphia Symphonic Choir
Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski
Reviewed: 21 February, 2022
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
This concert wrapped up the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Carnegie Hall cycle of Beethoven’s Symphonies with a spirited rendition of the First and a reflective reading of the Ninth, alongside an impressive premiere of a work inspired by the latter. The juxtaposition of the two Symphonies laid bare the degree to which the composer distinguished his own style in his more youthful work and highlighted its extraordinary evolution in the twenty-four years between their premieres.
While the model of Haydn’s and Mozart’s late Symphonies is apparent in Beethoven’s Symphony in C, seeds of his own late style are also evident. Favoring fast tempos, which the Philadelphians freely supplied, Yannick Nézet-Séguin shaped a fresh and vibrant account, one which never lagged and seemed more at home in the nineteenth-century than the eighteenth. This was especially true in the scherzo-like Menuetto where he emphasized the rugged character of the syncopated rhythms and the dissonant harmonies near the end, and in the energetic and sparkling Finale.
After intermission came the world premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank’s 2019 work, Pachamama Meets an Ode. For this commission, Frank was asked to compose a work in dialogue with Beethoven’s First and Ninth. The ten-minute choral-orchestral work, which takes climate change as its theme, draws inspiration not only from Beethoven and his world, but from Frank’s Peruvian cultural heritage, imagining a meeting between him and a contemporaneous indigenous artist painting scenes in a Spanish-style church built on the remains of an Inca temple. As it traces our twenty-first-century climate crisis back to Europe’s expanding exploitation of natural resources in Beethoven’s time, it highlights the irony in the use of Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ in the Finale of the Ninth.
Employing the same orchestration as that Symphony, minus the four vocal soloists, Frank’s music is grand and profoundly moving, revealing a brilliant and colorful work that interweaves the sounds of indigenous Andean vocal music, including discordant humming by the chorus, with the graceful sounds of a late-Classical orchestra. The lyrics, written by Frank, invoke striking images of animal extinction, fiery rivers, and dust-strewn landscapes. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, the eighty members of the Philadelphia Symphonic Chorus, their mouths obstructed by masks, failed to produce the clarity or volume required to understand the text.
The Frank affected response to the performance of the ‘Choral’ Symphony, reminding us of how its hopeful message has sometimes been appropriated for less than benevolent purposes, and how dreams of universal peace and brotherhood have yet to be realized. But this did not detract from appreciation of the work; on the contrary, it encouraged closer listening to Nézet-Séguin’s probing account. The orchestra was magnificent throughout, especially in the second movement in which timpani were wonderfully characterful, and the strings exceptionally light. The most extraordinary individual contributions were the stunningly smooth fourth-horn solo in the third movement and Ryan Speedo’s Green’s powerfully resplendent intonation of “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!”. Matthew Polenzani brought clarion tone and beautifully shapely phrases to the Turkish March, and Angel Blue was electrifying in the quartet’s ultimate appearance. On the downside, Rihab Chaieb was completely inaudible, and the choir, still encumbered by masks, was even harder to follow than in the Frank.