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Yannick leads the Symphonie fantastique and a Peruvian 'Walkabout' to close the season

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra in a performance of Hector Berlioz's 'Symphonie fantastique' in May 2023.
Jeff Fusco
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra in a performance of Hector Berlioz's 'Symphonie fantastique' in May 2023.

Join us on Sunday, Dec. 17 at 1 p.m. on WRTI 90.1 and Monday, Dec. 18 at 7 p.m. on WRTI HD-2 as The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert brings you the final program of the 2022/2023 season, featuring Symphonie fantastique, by Hector Berlioz, and Walkabout, a concerto for orchestra by composer-in-residence Gabriela Lena Frank. Both works, according to music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, were chosen to showcase the virtuosity of the Philadelphians as the season drew to a close.

Gabriela Lena Frank’s heritage is Peruvian and Chinese on her mother’s side, and Lithuanian and Jewish on her father’s side. This unique background has led her to fascinating juxtapositions of style in works for The Philadelphia Orchestra and many of America’s other leading orchestras, as well as Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, the King’s Singers, the Kronos Quartet, and others. In 2009, her chamber work Inca Dances won her a Latin Grammy Award. Walkabout was inspired by Frank’s travels to her mother’s homeland, Peru.

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The four-movement work begins with what Frank calls a “mountain soliloquy” featuring the principal string players of the orchestra. The lively second movement is a portrait of huaracas, the slingshot weapons used in the 16th-century Inca empire. The lyrical third movement is a prayer that evokes another indigenous culture, that of the Quechuas. The finale depicts a parade of musicians playing the tarka, a traditional flute, as well as drums, in what Frank calls “a sonic effect of controlled chaos that never stops building.”

Yannick Nézet-Séguin acknowledging an ovation during The Philadelphia Orchestra's season closer in May 2023.
Jeff Fusco
Yannick Nézet-Séguin acknowledging an ovation during The Philadelphia Orchestra's season closer in May 2023.

The program concludes with the Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz. At 23, a few years before setting the music down on paper, Berlioz went to the theater and fell desperately in love. The play was Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Ophelia was portrayed by an Irish actress named Harriet Smithson. She immediately captured the composer’s heart, and when she appeared soon afterward in Romeo and Juliet, his impassioned obsession became almost overwhelming. He sent her love letters, which went unanswered. She left Paris in 1829 without meeting Berlioz. Now unable even to admire her from a distance in the theater, the composer poured his unrequited passions into a new, semi-autobiographical work. He called it “Fantastic Symphony: Episode in the life of an artist.” So that no one would mistake his intentions, he wrote a detailed scenario and gave each movement a title, too.

With Symphonie fantastique, Yannick Nézet-Séguin wants to leave the audience 'unsettled' and 'shocked'

All five movements of the symphony contain a single recurrent theme, or idée fixe, which represents an idealized woman with whom the artist of the title has fallen deeply in love from a distance — just like Berlioz and his unattainable Harriet. This idée fixe is the primary theme of the first movement, “Daydreams, Passions.” In the second movement, “A Ball,” the artist glimpses his beloved among the whirling couples on the dance floor. The third movement takes the artist to a “Scene in the Country,” where he dreams of his beloved. HIs happy reverie is interrupted by a sudden worry: what if she should betray him? The pastoral scene ends with a distant rumble of thunder.

By this point, of course, the artist still has not met his beloved. Probably she has no idea he exists. But at the outset of the fourth movement, he believes he has been rejected. Despondent, he poisons himself with a large dose of opium. Instead of death, he experiences a terrifying hallucination. He dreams he has killed the woman he loves and is condemned. In this “March to the Scaffold” he witnesses his own execution — with a fleeting memory of the beloved before the guillotine falls. Still hallucinating in the fifth and final movement, the artist sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, a sinister gathering of mocking monsters, sorcerers, and ghosts. To his horror, the beloved appears and joins the dance, delighting the rest of the hideous assembly. The symphony ends with a seeming riot of orchestral color and brilliance — a perfect way to showcase The Philadelphia Orchestra in all its glorious color and virtuosity at the close of the season.

PROGRAM:

Frank: Walkabout

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Yannick Nezet-Seguin, conductor

WRTI PRODUCTION TEAM:

Melinda Whiting: Host

Alex Ariff: Senior Producer

Susan Lewis: Consulting Producer

Joseph Patti: Broadcast Engineer

Listen to The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert broadcasts every Sunday at 1 p.m. on WRTI 90.1, streaming at WRTI.org, on the WRTI mobile app, and on your smart speaker. Listen again on Mondays at 7 p.m. on WRTI HD-2. Listen for up to two weeks after broadcast on WRTI Replay, accessible from the WRTI homepage (look for Listen to The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert On Demand).

Melinda has worked in radio for decades, hosting and producing classical music and arts news. An award-winning broadcaster, she has created and hosted classical music programs and reported for NPR, WQXR—New York, WHYY–Philadelphia, and American Public Media. WRTI listeners may remember her years hosting classical music for WFLN and WHYY.