01/22/2013 05:56 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

Yannick Nézet-Séguin Wows With Shostakovich

French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, newly installed as the eighth music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, made his second appearance this season at Carnegie Hall.

The concert started out rather inelegantly with Ravel's la Valse, failing to do justice to Ravel's indolent grace and dramatic flair. La Valse is not just another grandiose waltz. It is frequently seen as a reflection of post-WWI Europe and Vienna in particular, a take the composer himself repudiated, but decay and a destructive end can certainly be detected from the very beginning in the ominous undertones -- or should be. The orchestra merely lumbered along while Nézet-Séguin loosely tied it together. There was no decadence, no flair, no sense of fatality; it was just an overgrown waltz.

After this unpromising start, I wondered if Nézet-Séguin was just another hard-working but lackluster conductor who got lucky and landed the post of music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, an ensemble with an illustrious past that had recently emerged from bankruptcy. Things improved with the Szymanowski Violin Concerto No. 2; he got a more focused sound and Slavic grey tones from the orchestra. Soloist Leonidas Kavakos, with super long arms, legs, fingers and hair (a stark contrast to the stocky, well-trimmed Nézet-Séguin) gave a technically flawless performance, cool from beginning to end.

It was, however, the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 that won me over in the end -- and surprisingly so. After 11 years of life in Russia and a life-long association with Russians and their music, I am particular about my Shostakovich, to say the least. There is a certain Russian essence, bleak and steely, that does not come naturally to those outside Russian influences. This Canadian conductor and American orchestra performed one of the best Shostakovich I have ever heard from non-Russians.

Nézet-Séguin was a decisive conductor, and the orchestra made music as one machine, not a mass of loosely collected musicians (as they had been in the Ravel). The strings had just the right balance of steely gleam and melodious appeal, the woodwinds were throaty and beautiful, and Nézet-Séguin's grip on the music did not waver for one moment, keeping the music taut and tense throughout. The second movement was sharp and astute, and while Nézet-Séguin had been unable or unwilling to play with the tempo in la Valse, here he freely toyed with the rhythm, crafting a biting and witty waltz.

An assertive and energetic conductor, he had the right amount of aggression tempered with self-control and reserve -- any hint of soppiness, especially in the third movement, would have plunged Shostakovich's latent pathos into bathos and made the whole symphony limp. The finale started out in an impressive stately tempo, and while the pace picked up later, Nézet-Séguin never let the music run away from him -- Shostakovich's music is seemingly so excessive at times that it's too easy to lose your grip on it, ending up with a sprawling unmanageable heap of sound.

This is a conductor I would love to hear more Shostakovich from -- the 7th Symphony, for one, would be a good choice. I wonder where he got his affinity for Shostakovich -- other than being Valery Gergiev's successor at the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, he does not seem to have particularly strong Russian ties. Hopefully I will interview him the next time he comes to town and get to ask him that and many other questions.