Don't be afraid. It's just new music.
Philadelphia Orchestra principal guest conductor Stéphane Denève is as friendly an ambassador as you could ever hope to find, and his brief comments before Thursday night's program should have put everyone at ease. The orchestra had deployed its LiveNote real-time program notes app for the evening. Denève held out the promise that the program contained a piece so sexy it might need a PG-13 rating.
Ah, what we do to unscare listeners. And they scare so easily. On Thursday night, Verizon Hall was showing a lot of red empty seats, and last Thursday's concert with a Jennifer Higdon work looked even more sparse.
The irony, of course, is how amiable this week's sole new work is, even next to three of the most popular in the repertoire. The programming made a smart point about cross-cultural sympathies. The new work, by French composer Guillaume Connesson, evoked music of Russian character, foreshadowing in the listener's ear the next on the program, Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto.
The Poem of Ecstasy (the "PG-13" piece) by Scriabin, a Russian, leans a bit on Debussy, who never needs a reason to be heard, but was here with Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun reminding us how a musical revolution began with a ballet whose story could only be rated R.
Violinist Gil Shaham looked to be in a state of ecstasy in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. During the orchestra-alone passages, he kept looking up at Denève with facial expressions of wonderment and surprise. I found it distracting, though for others it may have been an entry point. When he did play, he often turned 90 degrees away from the audience, sidling up to and playing into Denève's big figure, obscuring some of his own sound.
He is at least easy on the ears. The Tchaikovsky seems to find its way onto one of the orchestra's programs about once a year, and Shaham justified its appearance yet again. His sound had great presence, which carried his deeply gorgeous tone. There was nothing extravagant in the phrasing, and tempos were traditional — though he was such a speed demon in the last few minutes of the first movement, it was almost funny what light work he made of it.
The loveliest moments came in the second movement, where the violin has its sweet-sad pas de deux with flute, and then clarinet. In the latter, if super-soft in musical notation is ppp, Shaham managed an ethereal effect that could have been marked pppp.
Surprising instrumental effects are part of the great revolution in Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun — Boulez called Debussy's piece the beginning of modern music — and the last luxurious section had especially fine playing from principal oboist Richard Woodhams and, on a set of tiny, delicate antique cymbals, percussionists Christopher Deviney and Anthony Orlando. The Scriabin orchestra was augmented, using nine horns, five trumpets, six percussionists, and organ. There are many subtle moments in the work, but the orchestra was most impressive for a mass of sound flecked with glitter and angst that remains unresolved until the major chord radiates gold at the end.
Connesson's Maslenitsa, it turns out, was suitable for all audiences, and the consciously Mussorgsky- and Shostakovich-like aspects of it were just the start. The work, premiered in 2012, is the first part of a triptych. Denève leads the orchestra here in the other two works in the set this April. It is bright, merry music, at once French and Russian, but often in the vernacular of a movie score — a language in which this orchestra has become fluent.