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Friday, February 13, 2015

Concert Review: Let the Games Begin

Stephane Denève debuts with the Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The conductor Stéphane Denève made his long-awaited New York Philharmonic debut.
Photo by Stu Rosner © 2015 The Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Under ordinary circumstances, the podium debut of a promising international conductor with the New York Philharmonic would be a pleasurable, if minor note in the course of a long orchestra season. However, with the sudden announcement last Friday that Alan Gilbert would step down as the orchestra's music director (effective 2017) the first concert program under Stéphane Denève felt like the beginning of a long series of auditions for Mr. Gilbert's job.

For his first Philharmonic program (seen Thursday night at Avery Fisher Hall)  this tall French conductor was blessed with a program that played to his considerable strengths. French repertory was represented by Gabriel Fauré's four-movement Pelleas et Melisande Suite. The modern era was present with James MacMillan's Piano Concerto No. 3. The standard repertory piece was Tchaikovsky's reliable Fourth Symphony, making its return after a three-year absence.

In the four movements of the Fauré Suite, Mr. Denève made it clear that he could get very good results from the orchestra. The string tone was lush in the Prelude, warm and sensuous as the orchestra set the stage for the tragedy of these doomed lovers. The music moved slowly, swelling to a Wagnerian climax with the horns forming the core of a mighty chromatic chord. The spinning music followed, a gossamer sound of plucked strings and finely filigreed winds.

Perhaps this Suite's most famous section is the Sicilienne, a charming movement inserted as an afterthought by the composer. With delicate flute playing from soloist Robert Langevin and steady harp accompaniment, this movement enchanted the ear. The finale depicted the Death of Melisande in stark, somber colors, a melancholy movement with hints of the Catholic Dies Irae.

Catholocism was central to the next work on the program, the five-movement Piano Concerto No. 3 by James MacMillan, subtitled The Mysteries of Light. Taking further some of the ideas laid down by the French composer Olivier Messiaen, the MacMillan piece presents five meditations on the Catholic Rosary, each inspired by an episode in the life of Jesus Christ. With pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Mr. Denève took the time to explain the key themes of the work in a brief lecture with examples before diving in.

Mr. MacMillan's composition proved accessible, knotted and thrilling, led by Mr. Thibaudet's quick-fingered playing and the muscular orchestration driven by two key themes. A soft Ave maria (the work's opening notes) contrasted with a leaden cantus firmus, combining spirituality and solemnity in fresh and thrilling ways. A vast array of percussion and potent parts for the lower strings provided the engines that drove the work forward, and a thrilling cadenza by Mr. Thibaudet in the fourth movement provided the work's emotional climax.

Emotions also ran high in the Tchaikovsky work that ended the program. Mr. Denève got a muscular performance of this work, with the trumpet section playing full blast in an effort to prove their mettle in the absence of longtime principal Philip Smith. The thunderous opening movement shifted and moved in tone, capturing its composer's distress before the trumpet theme came roaring back.

Three smaller movements followed, each offering their own pleasures. Oboist Liang Wang led the lamenting slow movement, his mournful tone setting the pace for a journey through Tchaikovsky's burning psyche. The best of these was a carefully managed scherzo with plucked strings kept in an awed hush by Mr. Denéve's steady hand. A dynamic final movement followed, with Mr. Denève switching easily between Tchaikovsky's wrought-up brass and a calmer, almost pastoral Russian folk theme. In the coda that trumpet theme returned in an overwhelming fashion. If this concert was indeed an audition, this French conductor made it a good one.

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