Van Zweden’s ‘Rite’ Of Passage In NY Invokes Questions

Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden showed shock-and-awe firepower in his first concert as music director of the New York Philharmonic, but other aspects of his musical personality remain elusive. (Concert photos by Chris Lee)
By Barbara Jepson

NEW YORK – By early October, when conductor Jaap van Zweden completes his first three weeks as music director of the New York Philharmonic, audiences and critics will have had a good introduction to his musical tastes and temperament. But it may take time, as the versatile Dutch maestro and his players get to know each other better, for him to reveal his interpretive heart.

A violinist at the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam early in his career – and now, according to a recent article in The New York Times, a contender for the position of chief conductor there – van Zweden is reportedly trying to elicit more uniformity and back-of-stand presence from the strings. And the visceral excitement he brings to the standard repertoire is well suited to the New York Philharmonic’s core audience, which often prefers entertainment to enlightenment.

At the colorful opening night gala, van Zweden offered Stravinksy’s ‘Rite of Spring,’  Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G
with Daniil Trifonov, and a new work, ‘Filament,’ by Ashley Fure.

But that visceral excitement is frequently coupled with a tendency to bulldoze his way through the loud portions of a score. At the Philharmonic’s opening gala on Sept. 20, van Zweden’s performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had shock-and-awe firepower, stop-on-a-dime precision, and forward propulsion – all necessary elements in Stravinsky’s arresting ballet score.

Yet other conductors have communicated more sensuousness and mystery in the Introduction to “Part One: The Adoration of the Earth,” or found ways to differentiate one fortissimo passage from another. Only in the Introduction to “Part Two:  The Sacrifice,” did van Zweden consistently convey more variety of phrasing and tonal character.

Ashley Fure’s new opus will be followed by Conrad Tao and Louis Andriessen premieres.
(Justin Hoke)

The gala at David Geffen Hall began with the world premiere of rising star Ashley Fure’s Filament. It is the first of five world premieres commissioned by the Philharmonic for the season, with works by Conrad Tao (Sept. 27-28) and Louis Andriessen (Oct. 4-6) to follow in quick succession. (The remaining composers are Julia Wolfe and David Lang.)

Starting the subscription season with three world premieres in three weeks was a savvy attempt to counter concerns among critics who doubted the depth of van Zweden’s commitment to living composers. But it also reflects the conductor’s preferences: Last February, when the Philharmonic announced the programming for van Zweden’s inaugural season, he noted that he’s “not such a fan of separating new music from other music.” The post-season NY PHIL Biennials pioneered by prior music director Alan Gilbert have been discontinued, and two composer-curated contemporary series have been added. It will be interesting to see if the new-music programming in 2019-20 is as ambitious in scope and as well integrated into the subscription concerts.

In the meantime, Filament was hardly your run-of-the-mill curtain raiser. Approximately 14 minutes in duration, it is written for trio, orchestra, and moving voices. The vocalists, members of the Constellation Chor, were deployed at various locations in the balconies; the amplified trio, all freelance musicians, was positioned on pedestals onstage (trumpeter Nate Wooley; bassist Brandon Lopez) or amid the audience (bassoonist Rebekah Heller).

Fure has an intriguing sound world that encompasses breath, whispers, and sounds by the singers through specially fabricated, directional megaphones. She uses extended instrumental techniques like lip-smacking instrument mouthpieces or sliding a credit card across the double bass strings while bowing. But from two different locations on two nights, it was usually hard to differentiate these intriguing effects from the din of Fure’s sustained tones, which ebbed and flowed like ocean waves. As the singers traipsed down the aisles near the work’s conclusion, vocalizing through raised megaphones, they evoked ancient processions with rams’ horns. Then a gentle ostinato in the double bass and barely audible white noise from the trumpet and bassoon created a quiet, effective benediction.

Musically and dramatically, though, Filament was less engaging than Fure’s imaginative, ritualistic The Force of Things: An Opera for Objects, presented at the considerably smaller Gelsey Kirkland Center during the 2018 Mostly Mozart Festival. That work also employed moving singers with megaphones, as well as roving instrumentalists. But the inflexibility of David Geffen Hall, with 2,700 fixed seats, rendered the movement of the singers in Filament less integral to the piece. Drawing on European modernist and environmental soundscape genres, the work’s overall effect was that of an eerie, avant-garde film score.

Star soloist Trifonov – abundant virtuosity, impeccable technique.
(© Dario Acosta)

Every gala must have the obligatory star soloist, but Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov brought abundant virtuosity to his performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, lending subtle feeling, perfectly calibrated trills, and, where appropriate, pearlescent tone, to what can be a superficial, even saccharine piece. The lovely Adagio assai, which conductor and soloist took at a notably unhurried pace, was especially impressive in the extended opening piano solo, where Trifonov was soon joined by expert principal flute Robert Langevin. Later, the compelling English horn playing of Grace Shryock added measurably to the movement. Throughout the Ravel, van Zweden was a deft and considerate accompanist.

Trifonov also played Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto on Sept. 21 at the Fure and Stravinsky subscription concert that will receive its final outing on Sept. 25. Again, van Zweden and the orchestra were sensitive accompanists, and in the lyrical second movement, right before the piano makes its first entrance, the conductor engineered a lovely expressive shift in string sound, aptly darkening the passage. Although Trifonov’s playing was at times a bit too Romantic, his technique was impeccable, and he handled transitions in his part with fluidity and thematic purpose.

Jaap van Zweden succeeds Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel and Alan Gilbert in New York.

During his 10 years as music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, van Zweden was known as a stern taskmaster, not unlike another Philharmonic predecessor, Kurt Masur, who was admired for the mellow sound and penetrating choral performances he brought to the orchestra. Gilbert excelled in contemporary music, but his interpretations of the standard repertoire were unsatisfying. Over time, van Zweden has the potential to achieve his own artistic triumphs with the orchestra in traditional and new music alike.

And with Deborah Borda back as president and CEO after 17 remarkably successful years at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, there is eager anticipation about the much-needed direction she will bring to the venerable New York Philharmonic.

Barbara Jepson is a longtime contributor to The Wall Street Journal’s Life & Arts section. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Arts & Leisure, Smithsonian, Opera News, and other publications. She is on the board of the Music Critics Association of North America, having recently completed two terms as its president.