On Thursday night, the New York Philharmonic’s season began with an OOMP, i.e., an obligatory opening modern piece. That same piece began Friday’s and Saturday’s concerts, and will begin tomorrow’s. I attended the concert on Saturday night.
This OOMP is Filament, by Ashley Fure, an American who teaches at Dartmouth. I will address this piece in a forthcoming issue of the magazine—but will make one comment here. Last month in Salzburg, I did a public interview of Mariss Jansons, the Latvian-born conductor. He said that, when he was the music director in Pittsburgh, he had to program a new piece by an American composer every week—otherwise, the critics would kill you. I said, “But what about the audience?” Smiling, he observed that audiences and critics are two different things.
Jaap van Zweden, the Dutch conductor, has begun his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic. Undoubtedly, there will be a lot of OOMPs. Will this be enough to keep the critics off his back? Will this be a kind of toll you pay, in order to perform Beethoven, Schubert, and the rest of those fogeys? Van Zweden’s will be an interesting tenure, I think, marked by high musical standards, although the tenure may be carped at by critics.
I will now do some carping myself . . .
Technically, Daniil Trifonov can do anything he wants, with those wet-spaghetti arms.
After the OOMP, Saturday night’s concert continued with Beethoven—his piano concerto in E flat, a.k.a. the Emperor. The soloist was Daniil Trifonov, the starry young Russian (who composes, as well as plays). I had a worry about Trifonov: that his sound would be too thin; that it would not be rich, fat, or Beethoven-like enough. Often, Trifonov plays on the surface, rather than into the keys. In any event, I need not have worried, for Trifonov’s sound was plenty Beethoven-like.
His pedaling was shrewd. His handling of the cadenza was subtle. And technically, he can do anything he wants, with those wet-spaghetti arms.
As for Van Zweden and the orchestra, they were apt too. The orchestra was robust and masculine, but not too heavy. Van Zweden was purposeful, leaving nothing on autopilot. The horns behaved beautifully, which was a bonus.
So, what was the problem in this first movement? Well, it lacked fire and uplift. It was accomplished yet strangely dull.
On to the middle movement, the Adagio un poco moto. The orchestra began it with wonderful warmth—warmth I have not often heard from this orchestra. Trifonov showed a commendable cantabile. But at some point, the music got plodding. You could hear the bar lines: triplety, triplety . . .
For a pianist, the last movement, the Rondo, is one of the most awkward in the literature. Trifonov managed it well, overcoming awkwardness. The playing of this movement, from one and all, was perfectly competent. And yet, the music was short on its charm, sparkle, and verve.
In my experience, a truly satisfying performance of the “Emperor” Concerto is rare—much rarer than a satisfying performance of one of Beethoven’s other four piano concertos. Why is this? A topic for another time, perhaps.
On Saturday night, there was one work after intermission: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This is music to be danced to, of course—a ballet—but we know it better as an orchestra piece, a concert piece. Also, it is a piece surrounded by myth: expectations of it are high, I think. People expect an exciting, heart-pounding, throttling, and giddy experience.
The Rite of Spring is, among other things, a concerto for orchestra, in a way. By that I mean that principals have a lot of work to do, or opportunities to shine. The Philharmonic players acquitted themselves well.
You have heard wilder Rites than the one from Van Zweden’s baton. And yet I liked his conception and execution of the piece. I thought of a phrase from U.S. foreign policy: “strategic patience.” That was what Van Zweden was exercising. And, from my point of view, it paid off. In the end, the piece was amply primitive and jolting.
There was an encore, which thrilled me—I mean, the very fact of an encore. For a few years, Lorin Maazel regularly conducted encores in New York. Then he stopped. I’m not sure why. An encore can be like a dessert, capping a meal. On Saturday night, Van Zweden conducted “The Ride of the Valkyries” from Wagner’s Ring opera Die Walküre. When the music began, a man muttered to his wife, “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
You know, the “Ride” does have a buzzy beginning!