Van Zweden Looks To Be A Keeper In NY Phil Foretaste

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Jaap van Zweden, whose tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic is to begin in 2018, conducted the orchestra on Nov. 17. (Concert photos by Chris Lee)
Jaap van Zweden, whose tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic is to begin in 2018, conducted the orchestra on Nov. 17 in David Geffen Hall. (Concert photos by Chris Lee)
By Leslie Kandell

NEW YORK — Beginning on Nov. 17, the New York Philharmonic featured its next music director, Jaap van Zweden, in three consecutive performances. His inviting program in David Geffen Hall — Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and a new viola concerto by Julia Adolphe — was conducted with vigor and clarity, and it was warmly received. Nice pick, Philharmonic.

The orchestra’s present music director, Alan Gilbert, is to leave in June of 2017. Van Zweden, a small man of 55, bristling with raw energy, arrives in 2018 from the directorship of the Dallas Symphony, which he is scheduled to retain through the 2017-18 season. Once upon a time, however, he was a violinist and concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in his native Amsterdam. His conducting in this concert indicates that the Philharmonic string section will be in good hands.

Julia Adolphe's new viola concerto had its New York premiere.
Julia Adolphe’s viola concerto had its New York premiere.

Exhibit A in this proving ground was Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin. Its string harmonies shimmer and glimmer as the music slowly rises from nothing, the Holy Grail materializing from the ether and dissolving back into it. The performance gave the deep pleasure of a long exhale.

There was a certain amount of extra-musical fanfare for the New York premiere of Adolphe’s viola concerto, Unearth, Release. Principal viola Cynthia Phelps, for whom it was composed, performed it last summer in North Carolina, and a photo of her playing in the red gown she wore at last Thursday’s performance appears on the Playbill cover, in front of Lincoln Center’s skyline. (Phelps also recorded the voice-over welcome announcement asking that cell phones be silenced.)

This is the second time that the orchestra has performed a piece by the 28-year-old Adolphe, a doctoral student of Stephen Hartke at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School. At the Philharmonic’s 2014 Biennale, her Dark Sand, Sifting Light, which had won a competition sponsored by the American Composers Orchestra, was whipped into shape in two days of rehearsal. Gilbert pronounced it “interesting and difficult.” (My own assessment was “full, imposing, and short.”)

The movements of the new 19-minute piece — “Captive Voices,” “Surface Tension,” and “Embracing Mist” — are modestly scored, with an eye toward orchestral balances and highlighting the solo instrument. The portentous viola line, in its alto range over hovering strings, is punctuated by brass. The musical style is tonal, and, like the previous piece, not easy for the soloist. But Phelps handled her part with her usual high level of proficiency.

Cynthia Phelps was soloist in Julia Adolphe's viola concerto.
Cynthia Phelps was soloist in Julia Adolphe’s viola concerto.

Adolphe was lucky to have such a high-level showcase — a thought that occurred as the strings crept up into the stratosphere range of Lohengrin. The robust middle movement also featured strings and brass, and the third movement had a dreamy ending, as its title suggests.

Van Zweden is not known as a champion of new music, so apparently by way of sweetening the medicine, Philharmonic executive director Matthew VanBesien called the well-known Dutch composer Louis Andriessen onstage after intermission to award him the $200,000 Marie-Josée  Kravis Prize for New Music, which includes a commission for Van Zweden’s inaugural season. The concert concluded with the conductor’s rousing take on Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.

Some might have found it too rousing, but the audience was fine with it, and the orchestra followed its leader with gusto and assurance. Tempos were straight-up; the interpretation began with deliberately thin, held-back string sound, which grew as the brass took over. (This might also be said about Lohengrin.) No one would disagree that the finale became frantic, but Van Zweden kept control in the tidy second-movement oboe solo and the pizzicato third movement. It was that blast into the fourth — intended — that socked it to the audience, which responded with enthusiasm.

So far, Van Zweden looks to be a keeper.

Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, Musical America, Musical America Directory, and The Daily Gazette.