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The Philadelphians make it more than holiday pageantry 

Dressed in a short blood -red velvet jacket, conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin was tres debonair raising his glass and waltzing NYE in on the Verizon Hall podium with the Fabulous Philadelphians onstage and in the audience.

Yannick kicked it off with a luminous performance of Strauss’ Overture to Die Fledermaus and Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes (arg. Hermann) both showcases for the command of the Orchestra’s swirling strings. Nezet-Seguin made the evening more than a showcase for his obvious mastery of waltz repertoire. He also camped it up for The ‘Waltzing Cat’ (Anderson) with those meowing strings, playfully clawing at the strings with his maestro paws. Then more bubbly comedy with “the Champagne Waltz” with principal percussionist Christopher Deviney swilling it down and providing sound effects.

The program highlight was Kimberly Fisher’s
Fritz Kreisler violin medley Schon Rosmann/Liebesleid/Liebesfreud. Fisher is the orchestra’s 2nd chair principal and her technical artistry and expressiveness with Kreisler’s music is soulful and simply lustrous.

Yannick clearly enjoys conducting the traditional ‘Vienesse – centric repertory, but the Fritz Kreisler selections, Richard Rogers’ Carousel Waltz and ‘Tchaikovsky’s Waltz from Swan Lake made for a most vibrant second act. finished of course, that panoramic dance over the Blue Danube and the requisite clap songs, but Yannick skipped his usual NYE closer Robert Burns’ Auld Lang Syne, perhaps kicking off the afterparty toasts on Broad St or winging back to New York in time for 2019 on Broadway.

Bramwell Tovey spirited style for Philly holidays

Meanwhile, Philadelphia Orchestra’s most popular guest conductor-composer Bramwell Tovey was also having a robust holiday season in Philly, conducting two separate seasonal programs earlier in December.

The first, Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, with Tovey’s his narrative interludes laced in. “I wouldn’t dignify it with the term narration. What I would say though is that the first time I did it was with an audience of all young people and it seemed to work very well.” Tovey said a few days later in an impromptu interview in his dressing room.

The audience disagreed, this was vibrant Britten with added charm and the perfect prelude to a strong staging and orchestral-choral performance of Giancarlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, though rarely performed is a modern classic and many in this audience still remember seeing it on tv in 1951. It was actually the first opera to have its world premiere on television and was a huge success.

The key role of Amahl, scored for a boy soprano was portrayed by Dante Michael DiMaio, who sings with the Philadelphia Boy Choir and has performed with Opera Philadelphia. 

Tovey said “Young Dante is truly exceptional,” Tovey said. “Amahl is a huge undertaking for a boy soprano. When I arrived, he was already note-perfect playing this role. During rehearsal, I asked him to do a few things and took it in a ran with it, some of it is so high, he handled those high gs.”

The adapted biblical story of a poor widowed mother and her disabled son who take in three travelers while on a religious journey. DiMaio and mezzo-soprano Renee Tatum, as Amahl’s mother, had wonderful vocal chemistry and pathos.

The Philadelphia Symphonic Choir bringing detail and emotional dimension, to the chorale. And the Three Kings- tenor Andrew Stenson (Kaspar), bass-baritone Brandon Cedel (Melchoir) and bass David Leigh (Balthazar)- making the most of their character solos.

It played beautifully on the Verizon Hall stage, not an easy thing to stage opera with the orchestra also onstage. Tovey noted stage director Omera Ben Seadia is the reason why. who moved the large chorus from the choir loft to the stage scenes with ease.

“We literally only had one staging rehearsal.  He was very creative, responsive to the beats and hungry for musical information…and if I suggested leaning on a phrase this way or that, he would do it next time and it would immediately go onto his musical hard drive.”

For his part, Tovey had never conducted the piece.   And a vast majority of the Philadelphia Orchestra had never performed it, though, on both counts, one would never have guessed. This was a triumphant performance of an underappreciated Menotti work.

The following week, Tovey’s revisited the repertory of Philadelphia Orchestra’s number one classical album of all time 1962’s The Glorious Sounds of Christmas.

The highlight of which was Tovey’s narration as he accompanied himself on piano with melodies of carols, jazz riffs, and classical improvisations, while reciting ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, with that sonorous deep voice, delivering magical moments.

As busy as the maestro was during his holidays in Philly, he still had time for a pop-up a concert at Liberty Place shopping tower.  And he popped up to New York in between the programs to perform as guest pianist with the New York Philharmonic. “It’s fun to do it like that. In some ways, it’s easier to conduct it when I’m playing it.” Tovey recalls that  Leonard Bernstein gave him the idea.

Tovey not only cracks audiences up with his relaxed banter on the podium, but he also has the vocal prowess of a veteran British actor. For the second program with the Philadelphians is now becoming a semi-annual performance by Tovey of a recreation of conductor Eugene Ormandy’s 1964 concert The Glorious Sounds of Christmas’ that became a bestselling album across the charts recording by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1964.
“Something I really enjoy doing with the Philadelphia Orchestra,” the maestro intimated.

He narrates the  ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ Tovey’s golden baritone is as warm as a holiday fire, but he also draws more laughs with his witty asides on audience members arriving late, musical jokes about the orchestra or even slinging sharp political barbs.  He is the drollest maestro on the international circuit, but in the end, it is all about the music and his creative relationship with the musicians wherever he conducts.  

Tovey is now conductor emeritus of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, recently stepping down after his 18-year tenure as musical director-conductor. The maestro is by no means slowing down; he has been named the musical director of BBC Symphony Orchestra. Artistic advisor of the Rhode Island Philharmonic and musical Director of Calgary Opera. He has a slate of new projects lined up, including plans to premiere his new opera.