Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Postcards from New York - New York Philharmonic

 What a joy it is to hear the New York Philharmonic in the new Wu Tsai Theatre in the David Geffen Hall! I remember hearing the orchestra in the 1980’s, and how dead the acoustics used to be. Now the sound is so much warmer, allowing one to hear the details in the orchestral colours. I am happy that the latest renovations of this problematic hall finally yielded good results.


Last night, music director Jaap van Zweden conducted a performance of extremely well-known works, which posed for both conductor and musicians the challenge of bringing new ideas and excitement to these very familiar pieces of music.


The concert began with a splendid reading of Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave), Op. 26. This poetic tone painting received an evocative, colourful performance, with truly outstanding playing from all the players of the Philharmonic. The many subtle shifts in colours and harmonies were beautifully handled by van Zweden and the orchestra. 


Conrad Tao joined the musicians of the orchestra in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major, K. 453. Tao, a much extroverted player, gave us big-boned Mozart, drawing a bright, brilliant sound from the piano. Tao may be pianistically impeccable, but he was a little too aggressive in how he approached the concerto. Perhaps this is his 21st century view of Mozart, but I must admit that while I can appreciate his pianism, his playing more egoistic. I also listened in vain for a more spiritual dimension in his music-making.


Conductor and orchestra were sympathetic partners for Tao. The conductor served as a more classical foil to the soloist’s more aggressive interpretation of the concerto. Van Zweden blended the wind colours of the opening of the second movement truly beautifully, and the orchestra played the jaunty third movement with lovely attention to details, especially in phrasing. I was more impressed with Tao in his playing of his first encore, the pianist’s own transcription of Art Tatum’s “take” on Over the Rainbow. This performance showcased the young artist’s considerable pianistic chops. His playing of The Fairy Garden from Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, his second encore, was very well played indeed, although I did find pianist Charles Richard Hamelin more idiomatic in his interpretation of the same work in a recital he gave in Vancouver. Again, I found Tao’s playing of the Ravel much too aggressive for the delicate colours of this work. 


Is there any piece of music that is part of our collective consciousness than Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67? Its all-too-familiar opening motif has been heard in anything from commercial jingles to cell phone ringtones. That said, when the work is performed with commitment by a great orchestra, the power and startling originality of the work can still come through, as they did last evening. 


Jaap van Zweden led the orchestra in a reading of the Beethoven that was taut, forward-moving, and architecturally tight. It was such a pleasure to hear the weight and the full tone of the string sounds. I appreciated van Zweden tempo choices for each movement - with emphasis on the con brio of the 1stmovement, and the con moto of the second – as well as the very logical tempo relationship between movements. In the second movement, the conductor paid great attention to details of the phrasing, especially in the phrase ending of the main theme. The transition of the 3rd movement to the glorious C Major arrival of the 4thmovement was beautifully paced and tension-filled.


Yes, Beethoven’s 5th symphony can still “work” when it is a truly a great and committed performance. When one thinks that there is always someone in the audience who might be hearing the performance for the first time, we must appreciate the dedication and commitment of the musicians of the New York Philharmonic for making this iconic piece of music come alive once again. 


Last evening’s concert marked the beginning of a series of concerts in the next few months that would conclude van Zweden’s relatively brief tenure with the orchestra. Star conductor Gustavo Dudamel will then take over the music directorship of the orchestra, ending his association with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. So far, Dudamel seems to be able to do no wrong, at least in the eyes of the critics. I could not help but notice that Dudamel will be following the same path as former music director Zubin Mehta. Will the New York critics be just as cruel to Dudamel, as they certainly were to Mehta? I guess time will tell. For now, I would say that the orchestra has been in good hands under van Zweden, and the audience’s cheers and bravos were certainly a tribute to the memorable performance he and the orchestra gave yesterday.



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