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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 © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Concert Review: Carry On, Mr. Bow-Ditch

Nikolaj Znaider conducts the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Cellist Jian Wang plays Elgar and Nikolaj Znaider conducted hist first concerts with the
New York Philharmonic this week. Photo by Chris Lee © 2018 The New York Philharmonic.
On the great stage of David Geffen Hall, it is customary to see Nikolaj Znaider with a violin and bow in his capable hands. However, this weeks concert series (heard in its final performance on Saturday night) put the musician in a different role: that of conductor. These three concerts marked Mr. Znaider's podium debut with the Philharmonic, although he is firmly established oversees both as a soloist and an orchestra leader.

Unlike last week's performance of the Sibelius concerto, this concert featured no showpieces or solo works for Mr. Znaider's instrument. Rather, he led from the podium with a conventional baton, occasionally pulling more sound from the orchestra with a scoop of his arms or a movement from the hips that pulled more tremolo from the orchestra. The program also skipped the traditional overture, featuring a simple and eloquent pairing: the Cello Concerto by Edward Elgar and the lovely and all-too-rarely played Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 1.

For the Elgar, the soloist was Jian Wang, also making his Philharmonic debut. It was Mr. Wang's task to open this piece's first phrase, playing the rising notes. The song of the cello was expertly accompanied as the orchestra swung into the loping main theme. This is the last of Elgar's major orchestral works, an outpouring of late tonal technique that requires great skill from the soloist and an expert hand tending its robust orchestration. Both were present from these men.

The second movement is in two contrasting sections, opening with a quick plucked passage before slowing to a Lento. The players sped up into a fast dance as Mr. Wang navigated these turns with the smoothness of an Olympic slalom champion, playing the elegaic melody with power and grace. His solo voice is fresh and energizing, a quality that made the Adagio rapturous to listen to. Mr. Znaider and his players took a smart pace for the finale, capturing the last of that bucolic and self-determining energy that is characteristic of Elgar's best work.

Following the applause, Mr. Wang stood and gave a short speech. He publicly thanked the Lams, the family that sponsored his arrival and study in the United States. (At this courageous story unfolded, an ugly and American voice was raised in complaint, a sign of the disgusting times we live in.) Mr. Wang then offere a short pentatonic enciore, playing a wistful Chinese melody called Reflections on the Second String. It was a good deal more interesting than the progammed works.

That said, it is an encouraging sign that the Philharmonic decided to play the early and thoroughly wonderful Tchaikovsky First. This is a work that the orchestra has unfairly ignored since 1997. Subtitled "Winter Daydreams", this symphony is at once more engaging and playful than his later, fate-driven pieces. Its first two movements evoke the snowy landscapes of Russia, with crisp, crackling melodies in the winds and a use of folk-like tunes. Mr. Znaider showed the current strength of this orchestra, the woodwinds and strings.

The second half of the work is two bright and brassy movements: a lilting Scherzo and a brisk and busy finale. Mr. Znaider kept the dance moving, leading into an elegant and classical trio. Tchaikovsky, in creating this early work packed this last movement full like a powder keg. Mr. Znaider led the fuse, and the brass, timpani and cymbals exploded on cue. This marvelous work concluded in a crystalline blizzard of sound, with Mr. Znaider letting off the bright final chords with gusto. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.