The indisputable highlight of this oddly-programmed evening was Nico Muhly’s Liar. His opera Marnie – based on Winston Graham’s 1961 novel about an identity-swapping, sexually-repressed kleptomaniac, adapted to film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1964 – premiered in London in 2017. The Met followed up in October last year and a few weeks before that the Philadelphia Orchestra had delivered this companion Suite.
While some took issue with the dramatic merits of Nicholas Wright’s libretto for Marnie, there was less disagreement about Muhly’s intensely dramatic music. For Liar he has wisely avoided retelling the story in miniature. Instead he makes major modifications, reordering scenes and reshaping some of the more-impressive orchestral moments, cast in an eighteen-minute movement. Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra briskly launched into its spiky opening pages and moved seamlessly through the seething and spellbinding score. Each character is associated with an instrument: Marnie by oboe, husband Mark by trombone, her mother by viola. Liar adapts much of the vocal writing to these instruments and depicts key events in Marnie’s life – her faltering romance with Mark, forced marriage, sexual assault, suicide attempt, even her relationship with her horse, the only creature she completely trusts – as well as the emotional torment springing from psychic injury as a child. Nézet-Séguin skillfully highlighted the rapidly changing colors in Muhly’s exceedingly graphic music to create a vivid portrait of the distraught heroine.
Next, the Mendelssohn: Jan Lisiecki delivered the Concerto’s first movement with an abundance of hyperactive urgency, plenty of speed and dash but relatively little sparkle or wit. In the middle Andante, to which the cellos brought beautiful phrasing, he was more expressive, opting for a tempo on the broad side and developing more elasticity and lyricism as the movement progressed. Tempos speeded up again in the Finale, the orchestra hurtling along pell-mell. More Mendelssohn as an encore: a tenderly played rendition of Venetian Gondola Song, a Song without Words. Following intermission came a mixed account of the Schubert. Nézet-Séguin was in less than full control of the first movement, although the second was more coordinated and graceful, with some gorgeous playing. He was most fully in command and the orchestra at its best in the propulsive Finale, exuberant trombones driving the music forward to a vigorous conclusion.