The New York Philharmonic Returns, in the midst of transitions

The New York Philharmonic concert on Friday wasn’t just an encouraging comeback to Lincoln Center for America, America’s oldest orchestr...


The New York Philharmonic concert on Friday wasn’t just an encouraging comeback to Lincoln Center for America, America’s oldest orchestra, 556 days after its last performance there.

The event also revealed an institution amid significant transitions, including the unexpected announcement on Wednesday that Jaap van Zweden has decided to quitting his job as music director at the end of the 2023-24 season. His six-season term will be the shortest at the Philharmonic since that of Pierre Boulez in the 1970s.

The big news from Van Zweden hovered over the occasion. But that wasn’t the only big news. The concert, at Alice Tully Hall, opened a season in which the Philharmonic House at David Geffen Hall will be closed for a long-awaited overhaul. Despite all the ravages of the pandemic, the closure allowed the Philharmonic and its dynamic president, Deborah Borda, to speed up the renovation schedule a year and a half. The opening of next season should take place in the “new” Geffen Hall; until June, the orchestra will perform primarily in Tully, the Rose Theater in Columbus Circle and Carnegie Hall.

Friday’s concert also showed a major institution attempting to address issues of racial and gender representation in classical music that have only worsened over the past year and a half. Mahogany L. Browne, Lincoln Center’s first poet in residence, read in a program that featured works by Anna Clyne and George Walker alongside Copland and Beethoven classics.

Van Zweden presided over the podium, of course. On Wednesday, he explained that the pandemic had led him, at 60, to reassess his priorities and put his family in the Netherlands first. The constant travel to New York and his other post as director, Hong Kong, which he has announced he will also be leaving in 2024, is surely not easy.

Yet his tenure, which along with the long shutdown has so far only been a season and a half, raises the question of whether he was the right conductor to lead the Philharmonie during a time of challenge, when a major overhaul was called for. When his appointment was announced in early 2016, he had received accolades as Music Director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for developing the technical abilities of the ensemble and conducting dynamic accounts of the core repertoire. But was that what the New York Philharmonic needed?

Van Zweden first appeased my reservations by enthusiastically joining the Philharmonic effort. to attract Borda from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where she had proven to be a visionary leader. And he arrived in 2018 full of energy and ambition. To my surprise, he was at his best leading contemporary scores, especially major firsts like Julia Wolfe’s bubbling multimedia oratorio “The fire in my mouth” and “Prisoner of State” by David Lang a daring cover of Beethoven’s “Fidelio”. Van Zweden seemed in his element every time.

In collaboration with Borda, he participated in two series of new music: nightcap and Sound activated. At the start of his second season, he presided over the start of Project 19, who commissioned works from 19 female composers to commemorate the centenary of the 19th Amendment. One of them, “Stride” by Tania León, won the Pulitzer Prize this year.

Yet when leading the standard repertoire, which was meant to be his selling point, van Zweden, seemingly determined to add new vitality to the classics, often went too far, leading to garish, aggressive and overly emphatic performances. Not always. He has led vibrant and insightful accounts of Rachmaninoff and Brahms’ symphonies and other works.

But it gave baffling and blatant performances from the staples. And all too often, its programs drop a new, relatively short piece into an evening of familiar food. A disappointing number of programs this season stem from the same uninspired thinking.

He explained on Wednesday that he now sees his main mission as accompanying the orchestra in its nomadic season and inaugurating the next in what should be a beautifully renovated hall. More power for him. He will do two full seasons there; I’ll wait and see if the new space emboldens him – and the orchestra – to take artistic risks and match the moment.

Friday’s program, at least, was carefully designed and finely executed. Clyne wrote the tender and elegiac “Within Her Arms” for 15 strings in 2008, the day after her mother died. The title comes from a poem by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, and the performance was preceded by Browne’s sensitive reading of a crucial passage. Intriguingly, Van Zweden made the strings give an extra pinch to dissonant intervals and chords, and brought out the subtle urgency that lurks beneath the surface of this ruminative piece.

Copland’s melancholy and slightly restless “Quiet City” was perfect for this time in New York, and the performance included an alluring solo from Christopher Martin on trumpet and Ryan Roberts on English horn. Van Zweden has directed a compelling account of Walker’s turbulent and turbulent search for “Antifonys” for chamber orchestra, from 1968. Browne returned to read his poem “A Country of Water,” a powerfully personal and richly work. metaphorical.

Then, with the whole orchestra, Daniil Trifonov was the soloist of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. As you would expect from this remarkable artist, he performed beautifully – alternately daring and sensitive, passionate and poetic. When he wanted us to hear intricate details, he brought an eerie clarity. But other times, entire passages unfolded in bands of milky coloring. The orchestra sounded sumptuous, full bodied and brilliant to Tully, who, with about a thousand seats, is much smaller than Geffen or Carnegie.

At the start of the evening, the audience cheered and applauded enthusiastically when a sincere Borda took the stage and once again welcomed the audience to the Philharmonie. With the new Geffen on the right track, she had started to imply that she was considering resigning. But now she has the chance to give a new direction to this legendary orchestra by appointing a new musical director. (What about his first wife?) I hope she will still be in office in three years, when a new era begins.

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