The Philadelphia Orchestra rarely misses a year in which they trek down to either the Kennedy Center or Strathmore upon invitation of Washington Performing Arts to present a concert that likely makes the local audience ponder why they themselves don’t more frequently make the reverse trip to hear an orchestra that is so exceptional. Tuesday’s performance at Strathmore was a solid case in point.
The Philadelphia Orchestra handily demonstrated that they are among the very finest of the many orchestras that grace the stages of our Nation’s Capital.
The program, occupied exclusively by Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad” by Dmitri Shostakovich, presents enough technical challenge, physical demand, and musical opportunity for an ensemble to decidedly demonstrate their pedigree or lack thereof. The work is monumentally significant, both as a titan among the symphonic repertoire and as a political statement by a composer who had fallen out of the good graces, even to have his work officially condemned, of the Stalin regime. As with many of Shostakovich’s works, a thorough read of the program notes is not only interesting but often can change the way one hears the piece.
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s vitality as an ensemble is inspiring, and under Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin they were pressed to full-tilt. The first movement begins with a bold, unison declaration by the strings. Their homogenous sound is so even and balanced. This was again evident, and even more impressive, in later moments of pizzicato that were impossibly delicate, yet still rich with tone. Nézet-Séguin’s tempi for the first movement were on the brighter side, maybe too much so for some listeners, but he has a knack for imposing his will on all level of minutia without stifling the players’ spontaneity, which makes nearly any reasonable choice of tempo convincing.
The solo wind players were one of many highlights for the evening. Efforts here by principal flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon were of particular note and received due recognition upon the piece’s conclusion. Perhaps overlooked in the recognition department though were the efforts of the snare drummer, who sustained a tremendously long passage of repetitious rudimentaries in the first movement that never relented in their clarity or precision through an impressive range of dynamics.
The Symphony’s inner movements are more varied in their tone, with moments of nostalgia, jest, and melancholy. Again, soloists from many of the principal positions contributed impressive work. The flute duet and violin solo in the third movement were especially beautiful.
Again in the finale, Nézet-Séguin pulled out all stops with drama and volume, which brings us to the brass. Their number, fortified by many extra players, produced a quantity of sound that was at times overwhelming, yet somehow never split or hardened, remaining resonant and glorious. In the program notes, Christopher Gibbs writes “The final minute of the Symphony must be among the loudest in the orchestral literature.” Few would argue with that.
A work such as Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony is not forgiving of the meek or mild. The Philadelphia Orchestra handily demonstrated that they are among the very finest of the many orchestras that grace the stages of our Nation’s Capital.