Van Zweden Gives Taste Of Things To Come At NY Phil

In transition from tacos to Tiffany, outgoing Dallas Symphony music director Jaap van Zweden opened the New York Philharmonic season as its music director designate. (Photo: Roger Neve)
By Susan Brodie

NEW YORK — The New York Philharmonic opened its 2017-18 subscription series Sept. 22 with two big works, one new, one old. It was an opportunity for a full house to assess the man entrusted with the Phil’s near future, music director designate Jaap van Zweden.

Van Zweden’s appointment to the New York job was regarded with a mix of eagerness and skepticism. His ten years at the Dallas Symphony produced a sheen and precision the ensemble had previously lacked, as praised in a review of his recent Dallas performance of the Mahler. Over the years there were rumblings of his harshness as a taskmaster, but in New York his conducting style provides a contrast to the more laid-back podium presence of his predecessor, Alan Gilbert. Certainly van Zweden is a man of great energy: In this transitional year as he completes his tenure in Dallas and prepares to assume the reins in New York in 2018-19, he continues his music directorship of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, where he is performing  in concert and recording the city’s first ever Ring Cycle. The extra-musical skills needed to negotiate the New York Philharmonic’s challenges through the planned renovation of David Geffen Hall remain untested.

Jaap van Zweden conducting the New York Philharmonic in 2016. (Chris Lee)

A note in the playbill traced a tenuous thread connecting the Mahler tradition at the Phil to the new Dutch music director designate. In the first decade of the last century, Mahler worked together many times with Willem Mengelberg, then principal conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, and the composer wrote to his wife that Mengelberg was the best possible interpreter of his work. Mengelberg became the Phil’s music director in 1922 (Mahler held the post from 1909-1911) and first conducted the orchestra in the Fifth Symphony in 1926. Fast forward to 1987, when former Philharmonic music director and Mahler advocate Leonard Bernstein was rehearsing Mahler Symphony No. 1 with the Concertgebouw. For a sound check, he handed the baton to the concertmaster, who happened to be van Zweden; Bernstein encouraged him to pursue conducting more seriously. Within ten years, van Zweden had given up the violin for the podium, and in 2012 Musical America named him Conductor of the Year.

Jaap van Zweden with the NY Phil in 2016. (Chris Lee)

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is a mighty work, over an hour in length, and the performance provided a chance for orchestra, conductor, and audience to assess the new collaboration. From the first beat, van Zweden came on very strong, pulling out all the stops in the opening bars. The opening trumpet solo was a confident fanfare rather than a tentative call into the void, and it led into an ear-shattering tutti. The Trauermarsch (Funeral March) was at once bombastic and micromanaged, with nuances that must have required fastidious rehearsal but didn’t really contribute to the feeling. Yet the orchestra sounded absolutely splendid: clean, powerful, and responsive to the smallest gesture; it was like watching a test driver put a muscle car through its paces. The following sections were more straightforward, without the precious detail of the cortège section but also lacking a certain lilt and larger shape.

Van Zweden’s origin as a string player was at its most visible as he coaxed the violin section with mime through the opening measures of the Adagietto, though their phrasing sounded oddly mushy given the conductor’s close attention. The yearning quality of the movement was perhaps a bit overdone with the endlessly stretched suspensions, but the sound was lovely.

The final movement, with its intricate fugal sections, lacked an overall arc, but the section work (as in the other movements) was thrilling, and the audience leaped to cheer the performance. The ovations that greeted each soloist and section’s bow acknowledged the splendid quality of this preeminent orchestra. It will be interesting to see how the players adapt to this new style as they become more accustomed to the new music director.

Katia and Marielle Labèque played the Glass Concerto for Two Pianos. (Birgitte Lacombe)

The program opened with the New York premiere of Philip Glass’ Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (2015, revised 2016). Written in three movements and played without a break, the piece is a typical example of the composer’s minimalist style, with repetitions of simple harmonic sequences and melodic fragments over a pulsing base, the rhythmic shifts and syncopations creating subtle variety. Written for and performed by the sister duo pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque, even these charismatic performers couldn’t infuse the work with much excitement. Glass’ style favors masses of sound with pinpoints of color from solo instruments or sections; even in solo passages the pianos rarely took a concertante role until the very end, which tapered off in a quiet, wistful mood uncharacteristic for Glass. In fact, the pianos were often hard to hear from the mid-orchestra section; beyond the hall’s problematic acoustics, the full string sections created balance problems. Still, the piece received a riotous standing ovation.

The couple next to me didn’t even bother to show up for the Glass concerto. This illustrates the dilemma faced by the Philharmonic: the continued demand for the best possible performances of traditional repertoire in (unfortunate) opposition to an artistic obligation to promote new works less popular with much of the orchestra’s audience. Gilbert excelled as a new-music champion, establishing the city-wide Contact! series and a biennial new music festival. Van Zweden’s interests in new music are less clear, despite a modest record of commissions for Dallas. Perhaps this kind of half-and-half programming — in contrast to the typical “new music sandwich” evening — is a strategy to consider as he constructs his own programs.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!