Guest maestros usually front the Philadelphia Orchestra’s holiday concert series but Yannick Nézet-Séguin, in the middle of his first season of chief conductor of the Fab Phils, was in Verizon Hall on New Year’s Eve to conduct the exit music for one tattered year.
Nézet-Séguin mixed the Viennese waltz play list up and chose the theme of orchestral dance music from around the world. He opened with the full Suite from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier which contains some very famous waltz passages that are most often extracted. The less familiar lead in to those dizzying waltz section had hints of being under-rehearsed with the orchestra creaky in some of the more complex transitions and atypical for Nézet-Séguin, erratic in the overall pacing. Just when it started to get brittle though, those swirling symphonics bounced everything into proportion and framed a glittering orchestral drama.
In contrast, Nézet-Séguin had no trouble, from start to finish, essaying Haydn Symphony no. 45 (Farewell) with its famous humorous ‘farewell’ from the musicians. Terrific, muscled mis-en-scenes in the allegro movement and Nézet-Séguin brought out the inner baroque chambers of the piece magnificently. Also gorgeous sonority in the cellos during the third movement minuet.
This conductor is game for fun and for such standard fare as Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube brought on Michele Camaya, Jaime Verzain, Todd Burnsed and Ron Todorowski, four dancers from the New York based Mark Stuart troupe. They did a switching partner waltz comedy that played to the literalness of the music. Later, the dancers were back for the Manuel de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance from El Amor Brujo and Stuart choreographed what could be viewed as an update of Nijinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, except that the sacrifice, danced by Michele Camaya, is no balletic victim. She let Burnsed and Todorowski fling her around in erotic lift patterns that kept evolving, but she ended up knocking them away when Stuart appears and they glide into a smoldering tango. No virgin sacrifice at the dance altar here. Dance in front of full orchestra, carries risks, they can easily devolve into Lawrence Welk-y style spectacale, but Stuart’s choreography was full of whimsy and wit.
The musical globe trotting also provided the highlights of the evening with Brahms’ Hungarian Dance and especially Shostakovitch’s Waltz from Suite for Variety Orchestra. The Prussian-Slavic percussive drive of this was just completely translucent, a fiery diamond orchestral sound from this orchestra. Then, Eric Satie’s reflective, cathartic masterpiece Gymnopedie No. 3, in the arrangement by Debussy, the Phil’s hypnotic strings, just lushness bathing the hall and the harp line by the inestimable harp of Elizabeth Hainen, providing golden musical moments. Nézet-Séguin finished with a Leonard Bernstein’s Mambo, always an audience favorite and the usual NYE fare Auld Lang Syne.