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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Concert Review: He Bows For No Man

Violinist Leonidas Kavakos conducts the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The violinist Leonidas Kavakos led the New York Philharmonic on Friday morning.
Photo from the artist's website.
The New York Philharmonic returned to Lincoln Center this week, with a program of Bach, Busoni and Schumann. That’s fairly standard, except this brace of concerts under the direction of the program's principal soloist: the Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos. Mr. Kavakos is the orchestra's 2016 Artist in Residence, an acclaimed soloist and a frequent visitor to the stage of David Geffen Hall. For part of Friday’s 11am matinee concert, he traded his vintage violin and bow for the more traditional little white baton.

First, the audience got to hear Mr. Kavakos in his usual role, doubling as soloist and leader in Johamn Sebastian Bach’s Violin Concerto in D minor. Due to Bach's habit of rewriting string concertos for solo harpsichord amd string tutti, this Concerto exists only in a reconstructed form, assembled (with painstaking care by musicologist Wilfried Fischer. It is not heard frequently on this big stage, having last been played by the orchestra way back in 1969, an era when the then Philharmonic Hall was still new.

Backed by a small group of Philharmonic players and harpsichordist Paolo Borignon, Mr. Kavakos gave a tender account the work’s three movements. The violinist was at his most impressive in the first-movement cadenzas, playing drones on his two low strings even as his solo line fluttered and rose above the high stave. He also offered taut leadership from his bow, working closely with the concertmaster and keeping the accompanists with him in a performance that was a fascinating throwback to orchestral management techniques from three centuries ago.

The second movement, a stately Andante, was played with a tender and intimate tone, as if reading Bach’s inner thoughts and converting them to sound for the assembled to hear. The effect was tiring and immediate, drawing the listener into this monologue with playing that was more soulful than flashy. The third movement featured the most bravura moments, with his violin flying free and fearless against the repeated, dancing structures played by the accompanying orchestra.

Mr. Kavakos then returned sans violin to lead the Berceuse élégiaque, a short but tender tone poem by the German-born composer Ferruccio Busoni. This is as close to a popular piece in Busoni’s vast and thorny catalogue, a slow meditation on the death of the composer's mother that reveals his unique voicing a for wind, strings and percussionon Ina slow crescendo and diminuendo.

Perched on a podium and working carefully from a score, Mr. Kavakos  opted for slow tempos in this work. He cued the musicians for each instrument's dream-like entry, letting the protracted silences and enforced, extended stil moments make their own statements. In the final bars, the smooth arc of the work was briefly altered by the sounding of an unexpected and persistent electronic voice from the rear of the house. However, this intrusion did not faze the artists, not spoil the works subtle and cumulative effect.

For the Schumann Symphony No. 2, Mr. Kavakos opted once more for the baton but dispensed with the desk and score. The results were. Beautiful tapestry of orchestral sound, marred only by slow tempos in the two outer movements that robbed the music of its drama and urgency. Schumann'ss poignant, unique voice emerged both in the pointed, skittering Scherzo and the expressive slow movements, which proved best suited to Mr. Kavakos’ studied and methodical approach.

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