NY Philharmonic Debuts: Arabella Steinbacher & Joshua Weilerstein

The NY Philharmonic’s most recent subscription program presented debuts for the soloist and the conductor.  Violinist Arabella Steinbacher, already an established recording artist in Europe, performed the Violin Concerto in E Minor by Felix Mendelssohn, and Joshua Weilerstein, an assistant conductor of the orchestra, made his subscription concert debut.  (Presumably he has already led the orchestra several times in non-subscription events, such as the Young Peoples’ Concerts.)  I attended the last performance of this program, on Tuesday night, October 15, and found both debuts to be auspicious.

Steinbacher impressed particularly by her big, solid tone, excellent intonation, and gift for projecting the lyrical line.  That gift was challenged by the approach she and Weilerstein took, especially in the first movement, where I thought some of the tempo shifts were rather extreme and the forward momentum that makes this movement so inspiring came very close many times to being broken.  One really can’t tell whether this was attributable to the soloist’s wishes, the conductor’s desired approach, or a joint decision.  With an established soloist and a young debut conductor, one would expect that the soloist would set the pace.  But this situation of joint debuts brings to mind a famous anecdote from the orchestra’s distant history – when Vladimir Horowitz was making his solo debut with the orchestra in the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto on the same day that Thomas Beecham was making his debut as guest conductor.  The story is that Horowitz kept champing at the bit as Beecham adopted tempi much slower than his soloist desired.  As the end of the Concerto was in sight, Horowitz threw caution to the winds and took off at his desired tempo to the end, finishing the concerto while the orchestra continued to play.  I don’t know if this is truth or urban legend, but I’ve seen the story in many different sources.  In any event, nothing so untoward happened last night.  But my opinion of Weilerstein was somewhat adversely affected by my discomfort at the extreme tempo adjustments in the concerto.

After the intermission, however, my opinion changed drastically as I thoroughly enjoyed the performance of Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8.  This is a big romantic symphony and Weilerstein played it as such.  Here the tempo adjustments made perfect sense, and he did a great job of sustaining the singing lines in all four movements.  I was especially impressed by the third movement, where he had the orchestra swinging to the implicit waltz rhythms with real grace.  I think that in ten or fifteen years, if he is in a position to do this symphony again with such an excellent orchestra, he will do many things differently. This performance was full of youthful exuberance, but also youthful exaggeration in terms of tempi and dynamics.  I think with more experience he would moderate some of that, and achieve better balances between wind soloists and the strings, and between the brass and everybody else at the big moments.  This is a very powerful orchestra, playing in an unforgiving acoustical space that can magnify balance problems.  Holding back the brass until the final peroration would be helpful in making the last movement not seem like a series of false climaxes.  But, on balance, I thought it was a successful performance, it captured the spirit of the piece, and the orchestra played very well under the leadership of its assistance conductor.

The concert opened with Osvaldo Golijov’s expansion for full string orchestra of a piece he originally conceived for a string chamber ensemble, “Last Round,” intended as a tribute to the masters of the Argentine tango.  I think I would have preferred to hear the original version for nine solo strings, because the use of a full string orchestra introduces some monotony of texture in a piece that struck me as a bit formless, a bit meandering.  Perhaps a more experienced conductor would have made a difference here, although certainly it was a creditable performance.

On balance it was a good concert and a good debut for violinist and conductor.  I hope that we will hear more from both of them in future NYP seasons, and I conclude that if by chance there is an emergency need to replace a scheduled conductor, the NYP management can be sanguine about asking Mr. Weilerstein to step in rather than recruit an outsider (as they have done more often over the years).

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