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Concert Review: The Dutchman Takes the Helm

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
Jaap van Zweden leads the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Concert Review: The Dutchman Takes the Helm

Jaap van Zweden takes aim. Photo by Chris Lee © 2016 The New York Philharmonic.

The Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden has become something of an easy target for certain classical music commentators ever since agreeing, earlier this year to take over the duties of music director at the New York Philharmonic. Mr. van Zweden's term begins in 2018, but this week's concerts gave New York music lovers a chance to hear the heir apparent at the controls of the orchestra that he will steer well into the coming decade.
The first item on this program was the Prelude to the Wagner opera Lohengrin, an exercise in controlled dynamics that explodes midway through in a dazzling burst of A major. Mr. van Zweden took a firm grip on the Philharmonic violins, having them play in strict time before the woodwinds and brass entered and allowed for more elasticity. If this is any indication, future Wagnerian evenings at the orchestra will be in good hands.
Next: new music, specifically the first New York performances of Unearth, Release by 28-year old composer and USC doctoral candidate Julia Adolphe. Ms. Adolphe, who was a star of the last NY Phil Biennial with her a new concerto for viola and orchestra . Soloist   Cynthia Phelps overcame cthonic growls in the orchestra, her instrument finding its voice and expressing itself in a rich and ultimately hypnotic melodic line.
The fast movement, "Surface Tension" offered the soloist room for virtuosity against a hurtling storm of jagged chords and tricky rhythms in the orchestra. Doubled winds and horns dueled with Ms. Phelps. She navigated the barrage with a sure hand, seeming to dance through the firestorm of sound. Mr. van Zweden spurred the players forward, cueing the quick, shifting rhythms as his baton sliced and diced the air.
If there is a parallel between Ms. Adolphe's work and Wagner's, it is in that both pieces exist as parabolas, with gentle beginnings and quiet endings that frame a big central passage where the orchestra plays all-out. This concerto ended with a slow movement, with the viola spiraling gently over the rolling tide of the orchestra, seeking some sort of serene close. It didn't come: the orchestra simply stopped in its tracks with unsettling and deliberate effect.
Tchaikovsky wrote the Fourth Symphony in a burst of creativity following his catastrophic (and very short) marriage. The piece struggles with the idea of "fate" as represented by a loud minor-key fanfare for brass that returns with the frequency of an unloved weather pattern. Audiences love its bombast, but Mr. van Zweden was careful to show the real and poetic nature of the conflict between it and the dance theme that provides contrast. The Philharmonic's superb wind section came to the fore in the following slow movement, with Mr. van Zweden drawing raw emotion from his players and molding it into melody.
The third movement is a showpiece for the strings, who set down their bows and pluck a rapid, skittering melody, only playing arco at a few points in this very strange scherzo against muted brass and wind. The finale was bombastic, with the "fate" theme roaring back armed with cymbals and gran casa to battle a Russian folk theme in a high-powered struggle, seemingly for the composer's soul. Tchaikovsky would give up that fight in 1893, but for now, the day belonged to Mr. van Zweden and his new charges.

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