Mahler’s Symphony No. 4: Philadelphia Orchestra

Earlier today I searched for recommended recordings of Mahler’s 4th symphony. At the top of the list was the Berlin Philharmonic performance with Christian Karg & Yannick Nezet-Seguin. 

This evening’s performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra was conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin. Having spent much of the season listening to these professionals musicians punctuate each piece of music according to the expectations of the evening’s director with precision of a Hemingway short story and the capacity to switch styles, tonality, and form at will, I knew what to expect.

Did this combination of musical understanding write the happily ever after concert or did the evening end in tragedy? Who are we kidding — it swept us away. Mahler’s 4th symphony is one of his most popular works, penning themes that circle in and out of the symphony through its movements, from light and airy perspectives reflecting a child’s view of heaven to moments portraying death. Mr. Nezet-Seguin infuses movement into the orchestra and especially this piece better than any others we have heard work with this orchestra. 

Like many masterpieces, the critics and audience did not recognize the genius of the work or have the time to analyze and appreciate all the composer penned when it premiered. Fortunately, it survived the initial criticism. Tonight’s interpretation was masterful. Soprano Pretty Yende proved completely capable of embodying the storytelling of a piece that explores the afterlife, leaving us feeling a bit of heaven on earth. 

Though we came for the Mahler performance, it was not the only exciting musical offering of the evening. The orchestra commissioned a new piece: Wang’s Xi’s Ensō. The title comes from the Buddhist symbol that represents the flow and togetherness of people and nature in a circle. This piece was very programmatic, and easy to follow the life experience of the composer moving through the challenges of western and eastern worlds  while seeking healing. Truly creative, it bounded from Orchestra section to section passing the melody back and forth with the intensity of a championship athletic event. I particularly enjoyed the vast use of various percussion instruments. She also employed vocal techniques from the orchestra to ominous effect. At times calm and other times troubled, I found it an accurate depiction of life in general. 

Such pieces, played so well, are helping me increase my appreciate for modern composers, though my heart remains fairly entrenched in the bards of days of yore.

A quick aside: If you visit a professional orchestra or symphony, they often have a pre-show where the music director, a guest performer, or music historian will spend 30 to 60 minutes walking you through the history of a piece and things to listen for. They also will often share anecdotes about the preparation for the evening’s performance. It is a great way to increase your enjoyment in an evening. Check the website to find out, or ask the ticket office when purchasing your tickets if there is such an event for the concert. Sometimes they are for patrons, but often they are available to all–as long as you arrive early.  

At this evening’s discussion (which The Philidelphia Orchestra offers for free) we were able to listen to the composer of this commissioned piece, Wang Xi, describe her music, her process, and what to listen to in her piece. She helped us appreciate the flowing eastern harmonics nature of music. She was then kind enough to take intelligent questions from a very well-informed audience. 

You can imagine our surprise when—after taking our seats—we found ourselves being joined by the composer herself! Talk about exciting! 

And as though those performances were not enough for the evening, the rising Cello star Skeku Kenneth-Mason of television talent show fame proved he was not a gimmick of special effects and creative sound design. He performed Hayden’s Cello Concerto in D Major with the enthusiasm that seems to emanate from younger artists but a tone that indicated we should continue to expect increasingly impressive performances from this young star in years to come. 

In the middle of the third movement of this cello concerto, one of the violinist’s instruments broke. It sounded like part of the neck of the violin snapped. The orchestra stopped and he left. Another violinist moved into his spot and they restarted the movement. After a rousing standing ovation, Sheku treated us to a plucked cello version of “I say a little prayer for you.”

The Philidelphia Orchestra continues to impress. With Yannick conducting we expect nothing less.  Come, and expect the best. 

*we were invited to facilitate a feature, all opinions are our own*

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