Philadelphia Orchestra presents ‘Mozart and Mahler’

The young and the timeless: Mirga and Menahem

I almost wished I were a photojournalist this weekend so I could capture this image: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, 31, a bright young star in the conducting universe, accompanying legendary pianist Menahem Pressler, 94, onto Verizon Hall’s stage to join the Philadelphia Orchestra in concert.

Conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla put a unique and youthful spin on the orchestra's concert. (Photo by Frans Jansen.)

The energetic young woman wore black pants and a short-sleeved orange top, her dark blonde hair loose and free as she walked behind the diminutive pianist. He wore conservative attire, assisted by a cane and an aide. But both beamed smiles of happiness, confidence, and mutual respect. Mirga held a hand mic as Menahem reminisced to the Kimmel Center audience about debuting with the orchestra and Stokowski 70 years ago.

This weekend’s performances represented Gražinytė-Tyla’s own debut with the Philadelphians, and it was memorable. Now the music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony (formerly led by Sir Simon Rattle), Gražinytė-Tyla led a graceful rendition of Mozart’s 23rd piano concerto, followed by an electrifying reading of Mahler’s fourth symphony. In the latter, the orchestra proved conclusively that it can soar outside the familiar “Philadelphia sound” (heavy on the strings) and bring us interpretations and experiences filled with grit and glory.

Can't stop, won't stop

Pressler has been lionized throughout his lengthy career as a concert soloist and cofounder of the celebrated Beaux Arts Trio. He did not have a “last tour” when he turned 70, the age at which many pop stars announce their retirement. Instead, he kept practicing and performing, like a kid embarking on a great new adventure.

His performance of the difficult Mozart concerto was enchanting on several levels. He has perfected the ability to convey the soul of the music with technical wizardry. His interpretations are crystalline and heartfelt, using the natural slowing down of the aging process as a part of his presentation.

Gražinytė-Tyla exquisitely controlled the orchestra’s partnership with this venerable pianist, raising the volume here, pulling back there, to let Mozart’s inventive lines shine. The second movement of this concerto holds some of Mozart’s most sublime moments, revealed here in all their tenderness and yearning.

Greeted with shouts of “Bravo” and a standing ovation, Pressler was up to not one but two encores (Chopin's "Nocturne" in C-sharp minor and Debussy's "Reverie"), where he proved that energy, talent, and imagination need not be limited by age. I think he would have spent the rest of the afternoon playing for us had he not been escorted off the stage for a final time.

Soaring solo

Mahler’s Fourth is pretty close to being a familiar old warhorse, but I have never heard it played like this. Gražinytė-Tyla pored over the score in a unique way, extracting sections, lines, and solo passages in her imagination, then conveying her discoveries to and through the orchestra. Some may argue that her approach compartmentalizes sections of each movement; she crisply delineates where others blur the lines separating musical ideas. There is certainly room in our listening experiences for both approaches. But Gražinytė-Tyla’s ability to bring out the bright, bold colors of the brass, woodwinds, and percussion, all while cushioned in the strings, was nothing short of dazzling.

In the third movement, an entire musical universe of sound and symphonic effects, emotional eruptions were tempered by the tentative “footsteps” of the pizzicato basses. The conductor seemed to embrace crescendos with her bare arms, pulling them toward herself and beyond, to fill the entire hall with the sound of splendor.

Soprano Janai Brugger joined the orchestra for the final movement. Mahler actually composed this work backward, beginning in the fourth movement with “The Heavenly Life,” a song that long fascinated him. Its text is by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, the husband and brother, respectively, of the woman some scholars believe to have been Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved” (Bettina Brentano).

Singing from the back of the orchestra, Brugger projected warmth, spirituality, and perhaps a cloud of foreboding. The orchestra completed this performance with a soaring hymn and a heart-stopping whisper.

Members of the orchestra sometimes present a chamber concert after a performance. For the first time, I stayed after the Friday matinee to hear three woodwind-quintet movements by Anton Reicha, composed in 1817 and 1819.

Reicha was a Czech-born theorist and composer who was friends with Beethoven during his Bonn and Vienna years, and later moved to Paris. The quintet included David Cramer, flute; Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia, English horn; Samuel Caviezel, clarinet; Angela Anderson Smith, bassoon; and Shelley Showers, French horn. An impressive number of concertgoers stayed for the bonus performance, which was a total delight.

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