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Review: She Returns to Lead the Philharmonic. For Real, This Time.

Last April, the conductor Simone Young, who had not returned to the New York Philharmonic since her debut in 1998, saved the day by jumping in on short notice to conduct the orchestra in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.

That’s a formidable 90-minute score. But Ms. Young fared well, which was no surprise, given the depth of her experience with major orchestras and leading opera companies throughout Europe and her native Australia.

And on Wednesday she was back at the Philharmonic, this time with a long-scheduled program that showed her at her best. In a way, it felt like Ms. Young’s real return.

She began with Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from “Peter Grimes.” In that opera, these orchestral episodes serve as atmospheric transitions between scenes. In the Philharmonic’s colorful performance, the sound of the violins, playing the high, wafting opening lines of the “Dawn” interlude, was bright, piercing and eerily beautiful. The fluttering woodwinds that break in came across like rustling, slightly ominous sea birds and mists. The deep, dark chords in the lower strings and brasses that emerge were like heaving sea currents.

But Ms. Young did not overdo the musical scene painting. She drew out inner details, balanced the layers and conveyed the effective structure of the overall piece. During “Moonlight,” subdued, chorale-like string chords had uncommon clarity: You could really hear the harmonic intensity generated by softly clashing intervals.

She then led the New York premiere of her fellow Australian Brett Dean’s Cello Concerto. The commanding soloist, in his Philharmonic debut, was Alban Gerhardt, who also played the work’s world premiere with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, in 2018, and its American premiere with the Minnesota Orchestra in November. (In December, the Sydney Symphony announced that Ms. Young would be its next music director.)

Mr. Dean’s 25-minute concerto, in a single movement with five sections, is an intensely dramatic and mercurial piece. It opens with the cellist playing soft, flickering bursts of notes and melodic fragments — as if starting a dialogue, but tentatively, almost teasingly. The orchestra responds by hugging the cello’s line with thick, tart chords that follow every twist. But soon the orchestra needles the cello, as if to make a contentious and contrasting point.

And so it goes, as the playful yet competitive first section segues into the ruminative yet anxious second, followed by a jerky episode with fractured rhythms. During a relentless stretch the game turns rough. The finale seemingly provides a chance to assess what’s happened. But the music remains quizzical and elusive.

Mr. Dean’s harmonic language deftly blends tonal elements with raw astringencies. The richly varied orchestration includes captivating effects for a battery of percussion, along with some silent-film effects from a Hammond organ. Mr. Gebhardt played incisively and brilliantly.

The concert ended with a lush, radiant account of Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations. In the well-known “Nimrod” variation, the wistful melody for mellow strings built slowly and elegantly to its stirring climax, as it should.

Hopefully it will not take another crisis — or another 20 years — for the Philharmonic to bring Ms. Young back.

New York Philharmonic

Ms. Young will lead the “Enigma” Variations, with Philharmonic musicians playing Dvorak’s String Sextet, on Saturday afternoon at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center; 212-875-5656, nyphil.org.

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