It should have been, could have been, might have been…
Had the best laid schemes of the Philadelphia Orchestra seen fruition, the centrepiece of this concert would have been the New York premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s long-awaited, much-deferred violin concerto. It was intended as a virtuosic vehicle for Leonidas Kavakos, the soloist on duty, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the resident conductor. The composer, alas, did not deliver. Again.
He officially apologised this way: “Regardless of how they fare later in life, some works have a pleasant birth, while others a difficult one. The violin concerto belongs to the second type, and I can only hope that when it is ready to see the world, it will be worthy of the artistry of Leonidas Kavakos, as well as that of the other artists and presenters who entrusted me with its creation.”
Exit unfamiliar Golijov; enter familiar Szymanowski, via his second concerto (1933). Exquisitely partnered – to say “accompanied” would be demeaning – by Nézet-Séguin and the still-brilliant Philadelphians, Kavakos soared in the ethereal indulgences, crackled in the propulsive Kochanski cadenza yet always avoided the traps of expressive excess. Szymanowski mocked his own music as “horribly sentimental” and even claimed, not too convincingly, that he was “almost ashamed” of himself. No matter. Kavakos sustained calm poise throughout, excising all traces of horror or shame.
Born in 1975, Nézet-Séguin may just be the most compelling, most accomplished conductor of his generation. He commands technical control that never suggests ostentation, probes for logic against obvious odds, invariably tries to avoid cliché and focus organic tensions. He opened the programme with Ravel’s raucous La valse, gauging the cumulative climaxes without concession to vulgarity. He closed the festivities with the momentous Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich, neatly balancing pathos and bombast, heroism and intimacy, wit and woe.
Incidental intelligence: following old-fashioned fashion, the gentlemen of the orchestra wore white tie and tails. Nézet-Séguin – as if it mattered – sported an open collar and tuxedo. So much for sartorial non-splendour.