Fab Phils dig in with 40/40 Project Jean - Guihen QueyrasYannick Nezet-Seguin & soloist Jean-Guihen Queyras (Ph: Phil Orch)

Philadelphia Orchestra principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales is sometimes hard to catch sight of in his usually positioned toward the back of the orchestra, but audiences certainly know him from the sterling tones of his playing. Thanksgiving weekend Morales was in front of the orchestra with guest conductor Juanjo Mena, for two stylistically disparate pieces for clarinet and orchestra.

But first, Mena’s opened the concert with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espanola with its famous Spanish Gyspy song equalized with Mena immediately eliciting a full-orchestral thrust scorching brass on this piece and a gorgeous narrative build of Rimsky-Korsakov‘s Russian classicism.

After a pause, Morales came onstage looking almost embarrassed, but soon enough was detailing, with penetrating clarity, Debussy’s Rhapsody no 1 for clarinet and orchestra. Conductor Mena pacing Debussy’s atmospherics with a subtle and quiet orchestral pulse. Even with one or two hazy overlays, this was an intoxicating performance of a technically tricky piece. Morales then tackled Rossini’s Theme and Variation for Clarinet and orchestra which features Rossini’s his vocal signatures transferred to the clarinet voicing- the vaulting roulades and the line gallops, among other effects- all masterfully dispatched by Morales.

Mena closed the concert with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4. with its opening heralds stating the themes of passion, intimacy and turmoil immediately. The symphony expressive to the dramatic events in Tchaikovsky’s at the time he was composing it, which included his escaping a false marriage and accepting himself fully as a homosexual. The razor-sharp arrests and haunting fortissimo that gives way to a trailing line on a solo instruments, sharply paced by Mena. Among the standout passages, the full string pizzicato Scherzo, and outstanding solo from oboist Peter Smith and cellist Yumi Kendall.

Both the Rimsky-Korsakov and the Rossini compositions are part of Philadelphia Orchestra’s 40/40 Project , designed by musical director Yannick Nezet-Seguin, of repertoire that have not been performed by the Fab Phils for 40 years and you wonder why they’ve kept these gems on the shelf for so long. Nezet-Seguin has been covering many of the works as well in his concerts and is obviously displaying strengthened aspects of the Philadelphia Orchestra with his stamp on these classics.

Conductor Nezet Seguin was back in Verizon Hall the first week of December for an Austria-German composer program for two performances in Philly and one in between in Carnegie Hall. He will perform the same program in Vienna this winter. Nezet Seguin toys with the concert convention, opening this concert with Brahms’ Symphony No. 3.

Much of the Allegro movement though suffered from erratic pacing and Nezet-Seguin kept the strings too turned down. It started to glow in the back half of the first movement, especially with the clarion French Horn of Jennifer Montone, refocusing the narrative drive. The Andante movement is Brahms is static from the start and Nezet-Seguin doesn’t bring anything other than an academic reading to it. Then Brahms’ famous recapitulation of that towering orchestral wave thunders in, but Nezet-Seguin admirably not leaning on its Brahmsian hook and making the composer’s non-crescendo ending a poetic statement. Along the way, Montone’s interplay with bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa a magical mise-en-scene.

After intermission, French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras bounded onstage with his 1796 cello and without fuss launched into Haydn‘s Cello Concerto in C Major. Queyras’ fluid approach to this pivotal baroque-classical hybrid by Haydn brings it out from under glass. His tones are sonorous and entrancing, during the cadenza, Queyras vibrantly exploring the implications of Haydn’s musical universe. Even though Queyras was in eye contact with Nezet-Seguin at any given time, he was driving this, meanwhile he had complete synergy with the reduced orchestra, and he was not in his own soloist zone. His passion in performing this was not lost on this audience.

Nezet-Seguin chose the full Suite from Suite from Der Rosenkavalier to close the program. Yannick has a special affinity to Strauss, but most instructive as Nezet-Seguin conjures the atmospherics, but also frames Strauss’ entire operatic drama. The internal drive calibrated by the chamber orchestra quality of the conductor’s circle, led by sumptuous violin leads by principal violinist David Kim.

Philadelphia Orchestra Nov. 29 (Juanjo Mena, conductor);Dec. 4 (Yannick Nezet-Seguin, conductor) performances in Verizon Hall, Philadelphia.