Take your time. Breathe. Something beautiful is happening here.
Erina Yashima doesn’t actually say any of this in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s online concert this week, but she doesn’t have to. It’s all there in the choices she makes — in her wise, deliberate tempos and detailed phrasing, and in the warm sound she gets from an ensemble of about 40 strings.
Up until now, Yashima, in her second season as assistant conductor, has led the orchestra’s concerts for students and special events. Back in March, she had a strong and promising presence on the podium at an Eagles-themed concert of short works at the NovaCare Complex for an audience of mostly special-needs listeners and caregivers.
In this week’s online concert, streaming Thursday and available through Sunday, she had the tall order of putting a personal imprint on one established classic plus another work being heard these days with new ears.
George Walker wrote his Lyric for Strings nearly 75 years ago, and it has hardly been neglected. But the music has recently found a role as a potent piece of social protest. When musicians gathered this summer in Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia and on the Art Museum steps (and elsewhere across the country), it was Walker’s introspective lament that they used to give voice to the outrage and despair around police brutality.
Perhaps the piece is now a way of remembering the souls lost to the coronavirus pandemic, says orchestra cellist Richard Harlow in spoken comments woven into the orchestra’s online production. Whatever associations the listener brings, Walker validates them.
Yashima uses a slightly quicker tempo than some others, which emphasizes the piece’s many mood shifts. There is anguish in it, melancholy for sure, and tragedy and tenderness. But far from contradicting himself with these changes, Walker uses them to tell us that sorrow and hope often occupy the same space. By going back and forth between major and minor, the piece is like a flame that almost flickers out but never does.
These online orchestral productions have the great benefit of up-close shots that catch instrumentalists in the moment. You don’t generally get this kind of visual access in live concerts (without bringing your opera glasses). But the format doesn’t fully extend the camera’s explanatory gaze to the podium. It’s often hard to make connections between the conductor’s gestures and sound being produced, the actual cause and effect of it, since you don’t necessarily have a view of the conductor at the moment you need one to understand the dynamics of the relationship.
The fact that the orchestra in its “Digital Stage” productions is presenting a single performance that may use patches of audio or video from a second performance further complicates the quest for fully understanding connections between sound and picture.
Still, much of a conductor’s work happens in rehearsal anyway, and here Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings is the happy result of the players' muscle memory in a familiar work and strong ideas from Yashima.
By taking the opening movement at a slightly slower tempo, she broadens the impact, giving the music a stately presence. A conductor makes a million little choices during a performance, and Yashima, German born and trained, achieves a high level of polish throughout. But it is depth that leaves a lasting impression, and it’s hard to think of a more meaningful and touching interpretation than the one both orchestra and conductor came up with for the Serenade’s tender fourth movement, the “Larghetto.”
It is expressive without being treacly, and intense in all the right spots — characteristics that, given the qualities that make our orchestra special, bode well for this partnership.