The Philharmonic Spans the World

by Sedgwick Clark

The Warm European Touch

Andris Nelsons is one of the hottest young conductors around. Hailing from Riga, Latvia, he has been music director of the Birmingham Symphony since 2008 and made a splash in March 2011 at Carnegie Hall, substituting on a day’s notice for James Levine in a Boston Symphony performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. He has conducted Turandot and Queen of Spades at the Met in recent years, but he only made his New York Philharmonic debut last season. The orchestra wasted no time in re-engaging him, and last week he led a comfortable program of works by Dvorák, Brahms, and Bartók. There wasn’t a harsh sound to be heard from an orchestra renowned for its assertive style in the not always felicitous acoustic of Avery Fisher Hall. The results, to my ears, were soothing but understated.

Dvorák’s symphonic poem The Noon Witch tells of a mother’s backfiring attempts to calm her child’s noontime tantrums by invoking the reprisal of an evil spirit. The work’s tedious structure is a drawback, but unleashing the New Yorkers’ inherent sense of drama might have driven the narrative ahead to greater effect.

Brahms’s Violin Concerto seemed a mismatch, with Nelsons leading a warm, idiomatic accompaniment to Christian Tetzlaff’s astringent solo. This superb violinist’s sound has troubled me in recent years. Never exactly a cuddly player, his beauty of tone seemed to recede at the same time he traded in his horn rims for contacts. His unappealing, tight-lipped publicity photo in the program all but shouts, “I’d rather be playing Lutoslawski.” Certainly not Brahms.

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is meat and potatoes for a virtuoso band like the Philharmonic, and they played magnificently. Still, while savoring the score’s pungent beauty, I wished for more emphasis of Bartók’s pointed Hungarian rhythms and accents – especially the sharp punctuation of timpani throughout.

The Year of the Snake

The Philharmonic’s “new tradition of celebrating the Chinese New Year,” inaugurated on Tuesday (2/12), was a pleasure from first note to last. Conducted by Long Yu, China’s apparent general music director, the orchestra was in flawless fettle, with the strings displaying some of the loveliest legato I’ve heard from them in some time and ideally blended brass.

I’ll leave in-depth comments to those more informed, except to say that Li Huanzhi’s Spring Festival Overture (1955-56) was played to the hilt, with the New Yorkers making the most of the work’s indebtedness to Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla Overture. Chen Qigang’s quietly expressive Er Huang for Piano and Orchestra (2009) was played with self-effacing affection by Herbie Hancock. Selections from the Beijing opera The Drunken Concubine, sung by the spectacularly costumed Yan Wang, received perhaps the most warmly committed playing from the Philharmonic. The effervescent Snow Lotus Trio sang three songs to conclude a delightful concert.

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