Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin at Carnegie Hall – Xi Wang, Mozart, Mahler

Xi Wang
Ensō [New York premiere]

Clarinet Concerto in A, K622

Symphony No.4 in G

Ricardo Morales (clarinet)

Pretty Yende (soprano)

Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin

3 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 13 December, 2022
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

This concert opened with Ensō by Chinese-born Xi Wang. Composed this year on commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra, the fifteen-minute piece blends conceptual and musical elements from Chinese and Western classical music traditions. The title refers to a sacred Buddhist symbol – a hand-painted circle understood to both illustrate and enact total spiritual enlightenment – from which the composer drew inspiration. In addition to the shape and meaning of the ensõ, she was inspired by the historical Buddha’s spiritual journey toward awareness and understanding.

Scored for a traditional symphony orchestra with a large array of percussion and a selection of Tibetan singing bowls (small metal instruments used to aid meditation and played by circling their outside rims with a wooden mallet), it begins with a piano sounding a ‘light’ motif employing all twelve tones of the chromatic scale in a single, ethereal-sounding phrase which reappears throughout and is meant to evoke the circular form of the ensō. As the music progresses, the theme moves from section to section as other musical ideas are introduced, representing what Xi has described as ‘different aspects of the human world’, including joy, suffering and humor, until it comes to a restful, contemplative conclusion. Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra delivered a highly transparent performance, using extended techniques to obtain ominous vocal timbres and sustain a contemplative mood throughout. Particularly Impressive work was offered by Paul R. Demers’s bass clarinet, Holly Blake’s contrabassoon and the members of the percussion section.

Next came a seductive rendition of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Ricardo Morales, the orchestra’s principal clarinetist, used a basset clarinet and seemed to revel in the extra downward range where the rich timbre was very appealing. His swift speeds in the outer movements were amazingly agile, with crisp articulation and fine detail. But his playing was its most poetic and beguiling in the sublime middle movement, where the other Philadelphia musicians, responding to Nézet-Séguin’s gracefully balletic gestures, partnered the soloist with an especially sensitive accompaniment. 

The evening ended with a refreshingly radiant account of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony – expressive and elegant, with marvelous attention to detail. Nézet-Séguin opted for generally fleet tempos and sharp contrasts in the sleigh-bell first movement, as sunnier moments alternated with darker, more somber passages. The second movement was crisp and clean cut. The Finale was gracefully shaped, but it was the spacious, songful reading of the slow movement that really crowned the performance, with its rapturous closing pages softly leading into the vocal conclusion, in which Pretty Yende, standing on a slightly elevated platform behind the violins, was the soloist, her radiant soprano all lightness and innocence.

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