A concert or a sports victory?
The Philadelphia Orchestra performance on Friday felt like the latter at the close of the Mahler Symphony No. 1, with each of the principal players being cheered, spontaneously and vociferously, like Olympic gold medal winners, the biggest applause being reserved for music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Though Bach's St. Matthew Passion was his greatest artistic feat so far this season, this Mahler concert was perhaps his biggest audience success - in a symphony that can more or less play itself, but is hardly fail-safe.
The quality of the orchestra playing, for starters, reflected the international state of the Mahlerian art - higher now than 30 years ago when the high, soft violin harmonics at the opening of the symphony weren't often in tune. On Friday, the solidity of the Philadelphia strings made the music speak clearly and differently: The music's vision of nature became something superior in strength to anything man-made.
But make too much of the music's bird and animal effects and the symphony not only becomes vulgar but also so caught up in the local scenery that it can become tedious. No such things happened under Nézet-Séguin, though he took the first movement repeat that can be tough to sustain. Woodland sounds were treated lightly. He also found extra dimension: an undertow in the music that conveyed the loneliness of existing apart from nature, a quality Mahler explored fully in one of his last works, The Song of the Earth.
The third movement is full of fleeting appearances by nursery rhymes, village bands, and other disparate elements that often have to be muted a bit to keep from becoming unruly. No muting happened here. Everything occupied its own symphonic real estate without any crowding. Pacing unfortunately slackened in the fourth movement, though the performance came to a roaring close - to which the audience roared back.
The first half was dominated by violinist Hilary Hahn playing the increasingly popular Korngold Violin Concerto, now beloved (rather than dismissed) for being drawn from the composer's Hollywood film scores.
Dressed in a slinky black gown suggesting a 1940s movie star (a bit of authenticity there, and quite a switch from her student years at Curtis), Hahn was a model of taste, giving the music's swooning romanticism the dignity it deserves but with an emotional generosity that her playing occasionally lacks. The final movement strained her technique, but it was written for Jascha Heifetz, so what can you expect?
Hahn's encore, by the way, was the "Loure" movement from Bach's Partita No. 3 in E major, which Nézet-Séguin listened to while lurking in back of the harp. Apparently, he's a fan.