NY Philharmonic Debuts – Wang & van Zweden

This week conductor Jaap van Zweden made his debut with the New York Philharmonic, and pianist Yuja Wang, who has performed with the orchestra out of town in seasons past, made her Avery Fisher Hall subscription concert debut.  On the menu: Prokofiev 3rd Piano Concerto and Mahler 1st Symphony. I just heard the Saturday night performance.

Wang has chops!!  She can play this most challenging concerto with technique to spare, but is she ready to make real music out of it?  Not in the first movement, I fear, because her tempi in the faster parts were much too fast to let the music speak.  Indeed, the delightful flashes of color planted in the orchestration by Prokofiev couldn't make their effect at these tempi, although the slower sections sounded fine.  I thought the second movement, theme and variations, was much better, as she relaxed sufficiently for the meditative variations and provided a fine contrast with slightly faster than usual renditions of the quick ones.  The finale actually began at a tempo I would characterize as "mainstream" for this piece, but accelerated in the coda, where I heard the only technical flub in her performance – one chord in the rapid sequence toward the end sounded off to me.  The audience was immediately on its feet at the conclusion – but in this concerto the last few minutes will do that, almost regardless of what came before if it was at least competent.  In this case, I think the ovation was earned.

Unusually, Ms. Wang was allowed to play two encores – reasonable in light of the tumultuous audience response.  First was a fantastically virtuosic arrangement of Youmans' Tea for Two, and then the melody from Gluck's Orfeo, presumably in the Sgambati arrangement.  Both, in fact, struck me as being played with more feeling and sensitivity than the Prokofiev concerto.  The temptation to treat the concerto as a steely modernistic piece is great, but listen to Prokofiev's own recording….  more lyrical than one might expect, but just as exciting.

I was surprised that van Zweden would pick a warhorse like Mahler 1 for his NYP debut.  This is a piece that the orchestra could pretty much play in its sleep.  Not to suggest that tonight's performance was sleepy; the tempi were brisk enough to suggest that perhaps Wang was not solely responsible for the excessive speed at places in the Prokofiev.  But therein was a bit of a problem for me, mainly in the first movement.  This piece has to start in mystery, but it sounded prosaic.  When the cellos intone their big tune, it has to be magical, but again it sounded prosaic.  (Listen to the old Horenstein recording to get the best idea of this.) The English translation of the tempo indication in the program said for this movement – "Slow dragging — Always very relaxed."  I don't think van Zweden's tempi met that description.  Especially the transition from the exposition into the development has to be very relaxed, but I never felt any feeling of relaxation; it remained very intense.

The second movement scherzo was a bit too clunky for my taste, and I could have used a bit of portamento when the strings had their big rustic tune. The third movement slow march lacked some of its pizzaz in the contrasting sections, but the finale seemed just right.  The orchestra played very well — lots of substitutes present, and assistant principals leading sections, as is frequently the case with guest conductors — but I didn't feel highly inspired by the performance.  It was good but not exceptional, and with such a familiar piece, it takes quite a bit to make it exceptional.  Which is why, again, I found his choice of this for a debut puzzling.  It seems kind of retro for a young conductor to make a debut with pieces entirely from the core standard repertory that have been played to death.  (The Philharmonic has played both pieces within the past 5 years.)

But it's clear that Maestro van Zweden has excellent technique as a conductor, and has had lots of experience leading a variety of orchestras.  Maybe rushing things a bit to hold down two significant podiums simultaneously -  Dallas and Netherlands Radio, soon to be replaced by Hong Kong Philharmonic – at this stage of his career.  But then, what do I know?  These days young conductors seem to be encouraged by managements to take on multiple tasks in far-flung time zones.  I can't imagine this will be good for their physical or mental health, or their musical development, but there it is.

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