Zinman/Goode/New York Philharmonic on December 5, 2013

Last night I attended the New York Philharmonic’s first presentation of a program that will be repeated on December 6 and 7, led by guest conductor David Zinman with Richard Goode as piano soloist.  The program included “Three Studies from Couperin” by Thomas Ades in a first performance by the orchestra, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18, K. 456, and Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, Op. 56.

I was surprised that I was not as enthusiastic after the concert as I anticipated being before the concert.    But I wasn’t, and it is hard to put my finger on why, exactly.

The opening work by Thomas Ades, leading light of the middle generation of current British composers, was a set of three short tone poems inspired by keyboard works by Francois Couperin (1668-1733).  These are not more-or-less straightforward transcriptions in the style of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances.  The program book referred to Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, which took works by Pergolesi and his contemporaries, put them in modern orchestral dress with some jazzing up of the rhythm and harmony, and made a ballet from them, but I don’t think the comparison is exact.  Maybe this is more like Stravinsky’s The Fairy’s Kiss, taking Tchaikovsky piano pieces as source materials.  But actually what comes more readily to mind is Luciano Berio’s “Rendering,” a moody tone poem based on the sketches Schubert left for a projected but never completed symphony.  In any event, this was unfamiliar ground for the orchestra and I thought the performance had a feeling of very-well-done sight-reading.  Perhaps this was compounded by this being the first performance, and by Saturday night they may have “played it in” a big more.  But I wasn’t swept away.

Richard Goode!  I’m a big fan.  I just about always enjoy his playing.  But I wasn’t swept away by his K. 456.  Part of the problem may be mine.  I just find this one of Mozart’s piano concerti to be less inspired than its companions.  (#17 is one of the best, bar none.)  The central variation movement is based on a theme that has little melodic allure, and the variations don’t strike me as Mozart’s most inventive.  The first and last movements also, while well made, of course, in the Mozart manner, are short of memorable tunes.  Zinman set a spritely pace, and Goode surely observed Mozart’s injunction that the music should “flow like oil,” but I found the performance immaculate but uneventful.

Things took a better turn for me after intermission with Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony.  Finally we had the full orchestra on stage, making a nice big romantic sound.  The NYP strings are playing so well this season!  The depth and color is superb, and Zinman, who prefers a brisk pace, connects well with them.  I was most impressed with the finale, which can be a repetitious bore in the wrong hands, but was totally involving last night, especially the super-charged coda.  This symphony is also notable for the numerous solo bits for clarinet, and the NYP’s new principal clarinetist, Stephen Williamson, showed his mettle.  The NYP had difficulty filling what had for more than half a century been the Stanley Drucker seat — an attempt to lure away the Philadelphia’s principal amidst that orchestra’s financial crisis came to nothing — but now the NYP is the incidental beneficiary of the tragedy in Minneapolis, as Williamson decamped from the now nearly-defunct Minnesota Orchestra.  He’s certainly an excellent player, but I think his playing still falls short of the color and fluency Drucker brought to the role.  I hope Williamson will assert himself more.  It looked like Zinman was trying to get him to play out more on some of the solos. . .

Finally, I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, and I have to acknowledge that the first piece on the program was written in 2006, but I found this a rather routine program which seems to have fallen into the tired old formula: start with a short modern work, then do a central repertory concerto, and conclude after intermission with a core repertory symphony.  Now, I’m happy to say that the concerto and symphony were pieces that hadn’t been played recently by the orchestra – the Mozart last in 2005, the Mendelssohn in 2004 – so this concert did not fall into my “lazy programming” critique of playing the same few works over and over that afflicted the NYP during the Maazel regime – but still I would hope for more ingenuity in putting programs together going forward.  Ades has written more challenging stuff, and this program would have benefit from a more daring choice of concerto, at the least.

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