David Afkham Debut at Mostly Mozart Festival, Lincoln Center

Last night I attended my second (and last) Mostly Mozart Festival Concert for this summer.  The big news, as far as I am concerned, is the New York conducting debut of David Afkham, a young (b. 1983) German conductor, who led the orchestra in an all-Brahms concert. 

Mr. Afkham, born in Freiburg and educated there and in Weimar, has had some prominent mentors: Bernard Haitink and Valery Gergiev (with whom Afkham served two years as assistant conductor at the London Symphony Orchestra).  He has been assistant conductor of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra for three years, and will be taking up his first important appointment, as principal conductor of the Spanish National Orchestra, in 2014.  In the U.S., he’s already appeared with the Los Angeles, Cleveland and Seattle orchestras, and over the next two years will also be conducting in Cincinnati.  He’s hit many major podia in Europe, including the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the LSO, and the La Scala Philharmonic, and has won several young conductor contests.  So clearly he has the foundation for an international conducting career.

To judge by his work last night, in the second of two presentations of this program, he’s ready!  The first half brought Brahms’ Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Op. 102, and the concert concluded with the Symphony No. 2, Op. 73.

Soloists for the concerto were Vadim Repin and Truls Mork, both of whom I’ve heard before both in concert and on recordings.  Mork is a particular favorite.  As is not unusual with performances of this concerto, the cellist outshown the violinist.  I think this is partly because there are only a handful of cello concerti in the active symphonic repertory, and this is one of them, but there are too many violin concerti to count, so odds are, almost always, that the cellist will be a veteran of the piece while the violinist will not be quite so familiar with it.  And this tends to show.  Repin was fine, but Mork was extraordinary, much more at ease with the music.  Afkham gave them a sturdy framework within which to play, and they did a fine job.  The Mostly Mozart Orchestra wind soloists are an excellent bunch, and Brahms gives all of the principals chances to shine, of which they took full advantage. 

And, even more so in the symphony, with big solos splendidly played by principal hornist Lawrence DiBello, oboist Randall Ellis, clarinetist Jon Manasse, flutist Yoobin Son, and bassoonist Marc Goldberg.  The brass also get a fine workout in this piece, especially the finale, and, as always, timpanist David Punto was superb in his big solo spots, especially the quiet ones in the first movement.  The string section of this orchestra is really chamber orchestra size, and in some late romantic works that could be a handicap, but this symphony benefits from the clarity that a slightly smaller strong section provides, and one never had a sense that the string sound was inadequately sumptuous.  Although this one month a year orchestra can’t hope to have the kind of cohesion and tightly-knit ensemble regularly displayed by the NY Philharmonic, they come very close, and as the Mostly Mozart season progresses, they constantly get stronger.  I thought the playing last night was at a higher level than I heard a week ago in Beethoven’s 5th, a performance that impressed me favorably.

Afkham took a very romantic view of the piece, bending the tempo nicely to mark transactions, finding bits of emphasis and inflexion in the long lines, achieving the desirable lightness in the faster sections of the third movement, and making a really sumptuous feast out of the big tunes in the finale.  

I hope that people from the NY Philharmonic pay attention to the young conductor debuts at Mostly Mozart, because the Philharmonic guest conductor list is a bit stodgy and predictable, and they need to help develop the conductors of the future by giving more of them guest shots.  Afkham should be in line for one, that’s for sure!

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