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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.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Concert Review: The Weight on His Shoulders

Jaap van Zweden leads Brahms, Adams and Ives at the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Man at work: Jaap van Zweden rallies the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2018 The New York Philharmonic
It's not easy to be music director of the New York Philharmonic.

America's longest-serving orchestra has a proud history of conductors and composers at its helm, legendary figures too numerous to list here. On Saturday night, Jaap van Zweden, who is in the homestretch of his first season at the helm of the Philharmonic, led the second of three programs that were firmly in the expectations that this city has of its music director. The concert was evenly split between twentieth century American music and the 19th century German repertory that is so beloved by the Philharmonic's more conservative subscribers. It was the sort of program that a Bernstein or Boulez might assemble, an adroit and canny mix of old and new sensibilities.

The concert started with Central Park in the Dark. Originally written as a sort of musical joke by its creator Charles Ives, this piece evokes the idea of sitting on a bench in that historic park as the bustle of New York from a hundred years ago goes by. The music breathed and heaved under Mr. van Zweden, a steady, rhythmic pulse evoking the fall of twilight and the slow lighting of gas lamps by city employees. Although this is a short piece of music (less than ten minutes) this exquisite texture seemed to slow time under Mr. van Zweden's hands.

Of course this is New York being evoked, and its urban tranquility is a myth that is cheerfully and easily shattered. A door, somewhere distant opened and a barrelhouse piano played, the sound of nearby saloons disturbing the quietude. Further disturbance came in the form of an impromptu, riotous Dixieland band before the slow magic of twilight wove its spell once more. This was a masterful performance of an essential work, with the raucous contributions by the Philharmonic brass and percussion falling well within the proud traditions of this orchestra.

Next, the Philharmonic and Mr. van Zweden were joined by Mathias Goerne for John Adams' harrowing setting of The Wound Dresser. This is the most atypical example of Mr. Adams' craft that this writer can think of. Only once did the orchestra accelerate into Mr. Adams' familiar pulsing musical idiom, before slowing again for the agonizing tread of the final bars.  The cell structure and small musical ideas that build like vast nanotechnological structures are still present, but the pace is much slower, befitting its solemn Civil War subject matter. Mr. Goerne gave an intense account of the text, which is by Walt Whitman.

Whitman really served as a hospital orderly in the Civil War, and his accounts are unsparing in their depiction of human suffering. The Wound Dresser combines that suffering with the compassion and despair of the narrator as he strives to undo the horrors caused by bullet, bayonet and shell to seemingly minimal effect. With his wide eyes and deep, detailed instrument, Mr. Goerne was an ideal interpreter of this material. Like the war symphonies of Shostakovich, the Adams piece is unsparing in supporting the horrors of the Whitman text. Mr. Goerne was fully wrapped in the part, haunted by the images he was describing in each horrifying verse.

The concert's second half was the massive Symphony No. 1 by Johannes Brahms. Mr. van Zweden proved apt to the task, pressing and folding crisp string textures in the slow introduction over the heavy pounding of the timpani. The actual thematic subject was stated, inverted, transformed and recapitulated to thrilling effect with each small thematic idea bearing new flowering fruit. That garden of sound bloomed in the two middle movements, each as delicate and pastoral as the opening was heavy and overbearing. The finale, with its chorale-like not-quite-Beethoven theme was led with bold and precise enthusiasm, the sound of the conductor driving his well-oiled machine and opening the throttle wide to take the audience on a thrilling ride.

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