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Saturday, October 14, 2017

Concert Review: Earth-Shattering Kabooms

Paavo Järvi conducts the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Paavo Järvii led the New York Philharmonic this week.
Photo © Harrison  Parrott.
The New York Philharmonic is (finally) back from a galaxy far, far away. This week marked the orchestra’s second traditional program of the season, with guest conductor Paavo Järvi leading works by composer-in-residence Esa-Pekka Salonen alongside music by Rachmaninoff and Sibelius. For Mr. Järvi, son of a famed Estonian conductor and a maestro in his own right (currently with the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo) this was a concert that played squarely to his strengths.

The program, seen on Friday morning at the first matinee concert of this season began with Mr, Salonen’s Gambit, a nine-minute work that (according to its composer) has the character of an overture. It was written in 1998 as tribute to the fortieth birthday if Mr. Salonen’s friend and colleague Magnus Lindberg, a composer who has also held the coveted Kravis Chair with the Philharmonic.

Gambit began softly, before the orchestra erupted in a tightly organized frenzy of sound. One had the sense of enormous forces being harnessed. The music took on the character of a series of carefully orchestrated explosions, releasing its energy again and again from the engine of a vastly expanded orchestra. This yielded to a quieter, impressionistic middle section with waves of sound that sounded spontaneous but we're in fact the product of careful construction and musical though. As the work climaxed, a final of earth-shattering kabooms brought the piece to its logical close before a slow fade to silence,

The orchestra was joined by another residency-holder: the dapper Danish pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. Mr. Andsnes chose to begin his tenure as Artist-in-Residence  with the challenging Fourth Piano Concerto by Sergei Rachmaninoff. This is the last and least k own of the composer ’s four essays in that genre, and requires pianistic gifts on a level with Rachmaninoff himself. While compelling to musicologists, the Fourth is something if a gnomic lwork that does not give up its rewards quickly or easily.

Even the most intrepid pianists usually avoid "Rach Four" because of its difficult character. It has a dexterous piano part that weaves itself seamlessly into the fabric of the orchestra with gleaming thread, but lacks the romantic melodicism of the second or the heroic stance of the Third. Rachmaninoff persistently chose sober form and musical intent over razzle-dazzle. Mr. Andsnes and Mr. Järvi took a clinical approach with this music, in a technically flawless performance whose only fault might be in the crystalline perfection of its three chilly movements.

The Sibelius symphony on the program was the Fifth, absent from the Philharmonic stage for four years. This may be the most optimistic of this composer’s major works, using a taut three- movement structure where the thematic ideas hinted at in the first two movements pay off handsomely in the finale, Sibelius uses small melodic ideas for the winds, hard against  a chugging cloud of strings. The conductor, working adroitly without being hampered by a written score, let the sun peep through the gloom of the first movement before spurring the music forward.

The Andante is a taut narrow bridge, woven of chivvying wind figures and high tensile, plucked strings. When the violins switch to their bows for brief thematic statement, the impact is palpable. This movement flowered directly into the finale with timpani and horns bringing the glorious dawn, the sound of tolling church bells made by horns and trombones. A thick, luxuriant second theme unfurled in the cellos and the work rose to a dizzying height. Then, Mr. Järvi signaled the end of this beautiful dream with six sharp chords, a terse finish for this composer’s most inspired final movement.

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