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Friday, April 13, 2012

Concert Review: From Y to Z

Jaap van Zweden and Yuja Wang debut with the Philharmonic.
Conductor Jaap van Zweden.
Photo by Bert Hulselmans © 2012 IMG Artists.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
On Thursday night, the New York Philharmonic returned to Avery Fisher Hall. This concert was a double debut: the first Philharmonic performance conducted by Jaap von Zweden and the subscription debut of star pianist Yuja Wang. A former concert violinist, Mr. van Zweden is now the music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

For her first subscription series, Ms. Wang chose Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto, a work which is near the height of difficulty in terms of pianistic requirements. Ms. Wang brought both delicacy and power to this concerto's most challenging passages, her shoulder muscles flexing as she exerted flawless control through the fastest passages and lyric moments.

Her fingers raced over the keys with the precision of an ice skater, executing the difficult first movement, and the more lyric theme and variations that followed. The Third was a race up and down the keyboard, at a break-neck pace with brilliant accompaniment from Mr. Van Zweden and the orchestra.

Mr. van Zweden then took on Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1, a popular, if treacherous piece Treacherous, because the vast outer movements can trip up any conductor. It is also a work with meaning for this orchestra, whose long list of music directors includes both Mahler and his greatest proponent, the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. There is also a strong connection between Mr. van Zweden and Bernstein, who led many concerts with the younger musician in his earlier career.

Standing on the podium in the shadow of both of these giants, Mr. van Zweden went boldly forward with the symphony that some refer to by its original title: Titan. He put his individual stamp on the naturalistic opening, evoking a sort of cosmic dawn with bird-calls. As the brass emerged and Mahler laid out his working themes, Mr. van Zweden kept the ensemble balanced, calling out individual details from the clarinets and low winds.

The second movement, with its chugging, club-footed Ländler theme, had a sentimental atmosphere. The Funeral March (famously based on the children's rhyme "Frère Jacques") was perfectly paced, seeming to erupt in spontaneous peasant celebration before returning to its somber tread.

The real pitfall in the Mahler First is the extraordinary finale. Mahler built a massive structure, opening with a deafening blast of cymbals and brass. From there, the long, complex movement never lets up. This music can sound bombastic and pointless when it is badly conducted, but thankfully neither of those qualifiers applied to this performance. Mr. van Zweden brought the orchestra unerringly to the first climax, which is where Mahler "head fakes" the listener, going back to the cosmic material that originally opened the first movement

Thus fortified, the orchestra charged into the last pages. Here, Mahler incorporates the recapped material into a repeat of the massive crescendo. The drums rolled. The brass stood up, to amplify their triumphant horn-calls.  Mr. van Zweden danced, pointing and exhorting his ensemble. The Mahler First roared to its close--a successful performance and a successful debut.

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