As part of the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia’s first American tour in 48 years, Antonio Pappano conducted his Roman orchestra in two concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall on October 20 and 21, marking his debut at the legendary venue. The concerts included works by Verdi, Respighi, Prokofiev, Mahler and Salvatore Sciarrino, and featured as soloists the soprano Barbara Hannigan and the iconic pianist Martha Argerich, herself making her first appearance at Carnegie Hall for almost a decade. Argerich and Pappano repeated their collaboration in Boston’s Symphony Hall and Washington’s Kennedy Center, and the orchestra and Pappano also made an appearance at Rochester’s historic concert hall, Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, with young Italian pianist Beatrice Rana.

Critics and audience were fittingly effusive in their praise. The New York Times described how “conductor, orchestra and soloist joined with a momentum that resulted in real delirium,” and acclaimed “the crisp, ravishing performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6.” “The players, and Mr. Pappano, admirably sustained their energy over the two evenings. On Friday, after the Prokofiev, they didn’t let up in a pair of tone poems by Respighi, as well as a double-encore punch of Sibelius’s “Valse Triste” and the galloping closing section of Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell” overture. Even in that latter, most familiar of staples, this orchestra made the music more than simply habitable. They made it vibrant.” (The New York Times)

Maayan Voss de Bettencourt wrote for Opera Wire: “The orchestra played Sciarrino’s piece with great skill and attention, and a certain amount of affection, but they played Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 with effusive love. There was so much joy and emotion throughout the entire work and there was a certain Italianate sound that made the reading so much more special. Mahler’s 6th is considered a very dark work, but having the moments of lightness made the darkness more devastating and heartfelt. The orchestra got to show off their full range of expression, playing as a single organism, a cohesive unit. Pappano brilliantly brought out the interior and interesting lines in the orchestra. Overall, the concert was a delight for the mind and the heart.” (Opera Wire)

Theodora Serbanescu-Martin of Bachtrack highlighted the “incredible mix of soul-soothing melodies, agonizing pleas, and whispered consolations” in the Mahler, not to mention “the famous hammer blows, timed with near-impossible precision, which elicited the same mix of awe, appropriate discomfort and stunned bemusement from many listeners. The highlights of the Mahler were the Andante’s anguishing climax before the final resolution to the positive and, even more compellingly, the first-movement duet between the first violin and French horn, where the commotion of the piece seemed to melt away as just two loving voices – a perfect couple – sang the most exquisitely shaped duet, a snapshot of a tender, sheltered world of dreams.” (Bachtrack)

Her colleague Jennifer Gersten, reviewing the previous evening, noted that “the Santa Cecilians’ delivery of Respighi’s tone poems The Pines of Rome and The Fountains of Rome was vivacious, perhaps carried by a touch of hometown pride (the orchestra premiered the pieces in 1917 and 1924, respectively). The latter’s pyrotechnics are not only orchestral, with brass players traipsing up to the rafters for the final section detailing the army moving along The Appian Way, but also technological, with a recorded nightingale song turning heads during the third section. As in the Prokofiev, the principal clarinetist performed the solo here with generous languor. The strings, led by their lively concertmaster (who shone in his own solos), captivated especially in the finale, performed earnestly and with joy.”  (Bachtrack)

Richard Sasanow of Broadway World, praised this “scintillating, gorgeously measured concert”. “Argerich took it all brilliantly in stride. She knows the piece needs no heavy breathing and she seemed almost relaxed and playful with her old friend Prokofiev… At one with the orchestra, Pappano brought out [Respighi’s] true portrait of the city (or at least what it was like a century ago). Filled with color and sunlight, the two pieces made for a delightful ending to the concert.” (Broadway World)

The Boston Globe’s Jeremy Eichler knelt at the altar of “the reigning high priestess of the piano. Her technique remains an astonishing marvel of penetration and economy. In the outer movements her playing had all the percussive steeliness and motoric fury this music asks for. After all parties present had roared through the work’s final bars, the ovation was swift and heartfelt — abating only some five minutes later, when Argerich sat down elbow-to-elbow with Pappano for a four-hands encore rendition of “Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas” from Ravel’s “Mother Goose.” Their rapport was deeply familiar, their playing full of air and light. Symphony Hall took on the feel of a living room.

Before and after the concerto, Pappano and his orchestra made clear they were a force to be reckoned with on their own terms. Color and character seem to waft upward from every corner of this historic Italian ensemble. And Pappano’s readings were infused with an almost tactile approach to the layering of sound as texture without ever sacrificing the music’s lyric imperative. Afterward, just as audience members began gathering coats, our genial Italian hosts had other ideas. As if to send off its guests with one last glass of Prosecco, the orchestra uncorked the “Galop” from Rossini’s “William Tell” — all sparkles and effervescence.” (Boston Globe)

Photo credit: Chris Lee