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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Concert Review: A Feast With no Stuffing

Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Score! Jaap von Zweden on the podium.
Photo by Hans van der Woerde, courtesy IMG Artists.
Sometimes in the middle of a season, you need to hear a fresh approach. That maxim may have been in the mind of New York Philharmonic administrators when they booked Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden for two weeks this year. Mr. van Zweden has garnered awards in his run as music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. He brings a brisk clarity to the music, and as Wednesday night's concert showed, the players responded with alacrity.

The concert started with a new work for the Philharmonic: the 1905 Cyrano de Bergerac Overture by Dutch composer Johan Wagenaar. Wagenaar is little known outside the Low Countries, and one wonders why. His Overture had considerable charm, offering an optimistic portrait of Edmond de Rostand's long-nosed poetic duellist. The sound of this piece falls somewhere between Die Meistersinger and Don Juan, featuring a gorgeous passage where the central love triangle of Cyrano was expressed in consecutive solos for oboe, clarinet and solo violin.

That last instrument was the focus of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Violin Concerto, with soloist Hilary Hahn. Ms. Hahn has made this 1945 concerto central to her repertory, and her experience with this challenging work rewarded listeners with a passionate and thoroughly committed performance.

Korngold was a child prodigy in Vienna. He escaped to Hollywood in 1938 following the Anschluss and spent the later years of his career trying to compensate for having succeeded as a writer of film scores. This concerto, a bid to re-establish himself as a "serious" composer, nonetheless is written around themes from four of his sweeping motion picture scores: Another Dawn, Juarez, Anthony Adverse and The Prince and the Pauper.

Ms. Hahn leaped right into the high, keening solo part, playing with unexpected gentleness in the long, difficult cadenzas that pepper the first movement. Mr. van Zweden led the expanded orchestra with careful restraint, letting instruments like bass clarinet and vibraphone color around the solo violin line. Indeed, the hot-house atmosphere of this movement fascinated and seduced the ear, with Korngold's gift for lush orchestration and sweet harmonies providing a luxuriant backdrop for Ms. Hahn's quicksilver playing.

The slow movement was passionate and sweet, with divided and accompanying violins evoking the mysterious opening of Wagner's Lohengrin. The go-for-broke final Allegro assai vivace had the dual qualities of technical mastery and genuine joy in the solo part. She followed with a lovely Bach encore, the Gigue from the third and final Partita for solo violin.

The New York Philharmonic gave its first performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 7 in 1843, 102 years before the Korngold concerto. With that long history, it is easy for a familiar work like this to become routine, especially with the advent of an important holiday weekend. However, Mr. van Zweden and the orchestra made this Seventh one of the most important Beethoven performances of this season, shining fresh light on this familiar symphony.

Mr. van Zweden's approach was simple: adhere to Beethoven's tempo markings in each of the four movements. He was careful to illustrate the connection between the slow rumbling introduction and the celebratory dance that followed, capturing the dramatic fire and spirit of this movement in a way that was at once innovative and familiar. The Allegretto was played with momentum for once, its repeated, dragging bass figure stripped of funereal tread.

It was in the third movement that the real benefits of Mr. van Zweden's approach revealed themselves, as the opening fanfare seemed to burst out of its starting gate. That kinesis carried to the answering winds and the slower section in the trio of this movement. That momentum also carried to the last movement, an allegro that was played fast and with gusto, but with some restraint and again, perfect clarity from an energized New York Philharmonic.

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