If there's a single piece on which the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin were meant to collaborate, it's Maurice Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, the complete ballet.
Heard Thursday at the Kimmel Center, this early Ravel masterwork of course exploited the orchestra's often-documented coloristic resources, but they were put to the service of the piece with rare precision and eloquence by Nézet-Séguin, whose rendering of the score addressed the piece's architecture, storytelling, and sense of dance with a unity I've rarely encountered.
Time and again, a descriptive flourish in the score simultaneously worked as a scintillating effect while also having theatrical subtext, powered by rhythms that suggest specific physical movement. The mysterious, unaccompanied choral introduction to Part Two was a good example. The Westminster Symphonic Choir managed a thrilling crescendo but also conveyed a near-cinematic sense of elemental forces advancing from the horizon while also introducing some of the piece's most animated music.
Ravel has often been a bellwether for Nézet-Séguin's progression as a conductor, starting with his early EMI-label Ravel recording with the Rotterdam Philharmonic that established him as a conductor with singular gifts for managing orchestral sonorities. His BIS-label recording of the complete Daphnis et Chloé ballet, however, showed him probing for a certain kind of emotional content that may not be there.
No longer. The ballet may well be a love story between the title characters (plus pirate abductions, interventions from the gods, etc.), but to the reader flipping through the score, the music's pure, rarefied air -- not blazing passion -- all but wafts off the page. Now, Nézet-Séguin seems more content to let the ballet's characters find their meaning and purpose allegorically -- but vividly.
He built sonorities of Mahlerian magnitude I never thought possible, but with colors that are still distinctive to Ravel, far more saturated than the pastels often favored by others. The wind solos from flutist Jeffrey Khaner and oboist Richard Woodhams were like speeches from some great Greek play. I part company only with the current wind machine, which is more like my idea of a banshee.
Individual elements of the piece stood out to be enjoyed for their own sakes -- showing how far the performance was from the thick harmonic soup favored by some conductors, who, in effect, are treating the music like Wagner. Nézet-Séguin achieved some nice blends, but what distinguishes him as a Ravel conductor is the way he finds the composer's more specific voice via a discrete layering effect engaging the piece's diverse components.
That sensibility translated into Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1. Nézet-Séguin avoided the typical beautiful vagueness of the piece's radiant opening moments, but he showed exactly what the components are in ways that make you love it more. Soloist Benjamin Beilman played with his own kind of intensity, though I wonder if this concerto is his cup of tea. The quicksilver second movement and stratospheric range of the final movement don't play to his strength. His youthful conviction sold the concerto effectively to his appreciative audience -- which is not to be taken for granted, especially in a program that felt particularly welcome among those feeling defeated by events earlier in the week.