The Philadelphia Orchestra’s cycle of Beethoven symphonies was supposed to come to Carnegie Hall in spring 2020. It should go without saying: It didn’t.
However, this series of concerts belongs in the lucky group of canceled performances who have found their way back onto the stage. However, the journey has been a reflection of our ongoing pandemic uncertainty. Although the cycle started last fall when the Fifth Symphony opened Carnegie’s season, it was delayed once again in January when the Omicron variant pushed off Beethoven’s Ninth — and its full-choir “Ode to Joy.”
So only on Monday did the cycle reach its conclusion, with the Philadelphians’ music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, at the podium for the First Symphony and the mighty Ninth, alongside a world premiere inspired by it, Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Pachamama Meets an Ode.”
In New York, Nézet-Séguin has taken on something like the role of resident conductor, even to the point of exhaustion; the performance on Monday came exactly a week before he leads a new production of Verdi’s “Don Carlos” at the Metropolitan Opera, where he is also the music director.
And because the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Beethoven concerts were an addition to its others planned at Carnegie this season, it has become the hall’s de facto house band. The ensemble was only there two weeks ago. There were some departures from standard repertoire (and Beethoven) that Zachary Woolfe applauded. New York Times, while wagering that “nothing the Philadelphians do at Carnegie this season will be more impressive.”
At the very least, there won’t be much competition from Monday’s appearance. Beethoven’s extremes — the consummate Classicism of the First, and the controlled excess of the Ninth — were absorbing but imperfect in this reading. But it was nevertheless a moving program, in large part because of Frank’s premiere.
Beethoven cycles that incorporate new commissions are at their best and offer a conversation between present and past. Frank’s is quite literally a dialogue, however imagined, with the composer she calls “Great Man.” And who better to contend with Beethoven? Frank, a composer with hearing loss has written about her experience of seeing him as a kindred spirit. The world-spanning background that inspires her practice — as the American daughter of a father with Lithuanian-Jewish heritage and a Peruvian mother of Chinese and Indigenous descent — provides a nuanced perspective, and check, on the brother-embracing aspirations of the “Ode to Joy.”
Her new work is a fantastical encounter between Beethoven and a contemporaneous Cusco School painter, tracing the climate crisis of today to the exploitation of natural resources and the global expansion of European powers in Beethoven’s time. In the piece’s 10 minutes, the text, written by Frank, invokes colonialism, animal extinction and images like a river “on oily fire.”
Using the same orchestration as Beethoven’s Ninth, minus its four vocal soloists, “Pachamama” is big, and deploys the emotive force of the “Dies Irae” from Verdi’s Requiem. Distinct textures do break the waves of sound: chromatic chattering in the strings, and dissonant humming in the choir — a nod, Frank notes, to Indigenous South American vocal music. The words are set straightforwardly, transformed only in the end to elongate the questions “What of odes?” and “What of joy?” Then a horn lingers indefinitely, a looming punctuation mark and a subtle bridge to the first bar of the Beethoven.
The two symphonies here demonstrated the Great Man’s enormous transformation in the 24 years between their premieres, but also how much of his late style was gestating in his youth.
His First is transparently indebted to Mozart and Haydn, until it isn’t. That moment, the Menuetto, is where Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation found its footing. Before, the strings — too many of them — were still mired in the introduction’s flowing phrases. With the Menuetto, their articulation was sharply in focus. It was a kind of artistic maturing-of-age with flashes from the Beethoven to follow.
Nézet-Séguin is a gifted Mozart conductor, and his treatment of the finale — witty and nimble — could have been the overture to one of that composer’s operas. It was only hampered by the overinflated orchestra. Beethoven can benefit from fewer instruments for balance, clarity, and, most importantly, energy.
The Ninth was more troubled by outsize scale. Nézet-Séguin took a long view of the work, beginning in mysterious quiet, as if descending into the symphony from a great…