3 Women Conductors Eclipse Gender Issues In NY Phil Concerts

Nathalie Stutzmann. music director of the Atlanta Symphony, made her debut conducting the New York Philharmonic in February. (Photos by Chris Lee)

NEW YORK — How long must women conductors wait until they’re simply referred to as conductors? Not long, at least at the New York Philharmonic, where they have arrived in quick succession since the first of 2023. All had highly individual personalities that transcended any sense of gender, whether the commanding bluntness of Dalia Stasevska (heard on Jan. 20), the cooler strategic mind of Ruth Reinhardt (Feb. 16), or, best of all, the dynamic insights of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s new music director, Nathalie Stutzmann (Feb. 23).

Some common characteristics (besides the obvious confrontation with the moody New York Phil, which can be truly world-class one night and lackadaisical the next): 

Dvořák figures heavily into their respective repertoires. Two out of the three conductors programmed his symphonies, Reinhardt with Symphony No. 5, Stutzmann with Symphony No. 9. The main piece on Stasevska’s program was the Sibelius Symphony No. 2, but she has conducted plenty of Dvořák elsewhere. 

Dalia Stasevska conducting the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall.

All three also presented major works that had to be new to them but with performances that were well in hand. The two characteristics are related: New or new-ish works are increasingly essential to symphonic programs, but the extra rehearsal time needed to present them in good shape assures that standard repertoire such as Dvořák will continue to be present because those pieces get up to speed quickly.

Stasevska, the 38-year-old Ukrainian-born chief conductor of Lahti Symphony Orchestra, was leading the Philharmonic for the second time. She conducted Wang Lu’s Surge, a dense, disparate world premiere that was meant to capture nothing less than the lifestyle and economic changes in the recent history of China. It was a promising starting point in a massive topic that could be any composer’s magnum opus. 

Stasevska might claim a special license with the Sibelius Second since she is married to the composer’s great-grandson, guitarist-composer Lauri Porra. That’s one explanation for why she imposed upon the piece such a dire sense of mission. One base line in Sibelius is the sovereignty of the Nordic earth force but one that, in her heavy-handed re-imagining of the score, suggested cracking surfaces of the land and the ice. Her conviction became so feverish that the musicians sometimes lacked enough time to do what they needed to do.

Similarly, Stasevska wasn’t about to indulge the sweetness of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, sending the concerto and soloist Lisa Batiashvili (who wore the colors of the Ukrainian flag) down a blind alley. One other curious feature: Stasevska’s gown had such voluminous sleeves that the musicians may have had trouble reading her movements, which may partly explain why her conducting yielded very broad strokes. 

Lisa Batiashvili wore the colors of the Ukrainian flag while playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic under Dalia Stasevska.

Elsewhere during the past month, the news was better.

With pianist Kirill Gerstein, the 35-year-old Saarbrücken-born Reinhardt conducted Thomas Adès’ 2008 piano concerto-of-sorts titled In Seven Days, one of this composer’s intermittently communicative pieces, this one about God’s week of creation. The piece comes with a colorful abstract video component by Tal Rosner that was often more engaging than the music (I loved the night sky images), though not because the performance was tentative. Gerstein, a seasoned Adès interpreter, brought his ever-welcome crystalline sonority to the piece.

For those who lament the lack of Dvořák symphonies beyond the frequently played Seven-to-Nine, the Third, Fifth, and Sixth symphonies are viable in sympathetic hands — and Reinhardt, in particular, has taken up the cause of Symphony No. 5, not just for the New York Philharmonic but in guest dates in San Francisco and Milwaukee. Dvořák was slow to find his true voice, which is why this early-ish work can sound like grand canvasses constructed from second-rate ideas. But Reinhardt gave an unquestioning commitment to every passage, magnifying the music’s intent, whether it conjured images of a Czech village square, the forest fairies outside of it, or the netherworlds in between. 

Ruth Reinhardt drew lush sounds from the Philharmonic during her debut conducting works by Bacewicz, Adès, and Dvořák.

Color is paramount, and though the New York Philharmonic isn’t known for lush violin sound and luxuriant cellos, that’s what Reinhardt drew from the players on this particular night, building emotionally vivid flourishes, right down to the exposed, arresting bass clarinet solo near the symphony’s end. Yet Reinhardt has even more impressive music-making to offer. A radio broadcast of her Seattle Symphony Orchestra performance of the Sibelius Symphony No. 1 had such energy and insight that I would call it a drop-everything-and-hire-her moment. Though such lightning strikes can’t be predicted or counted on, they show what is possible. 

Prior to her contralto career, Stutzmann, now 57, studied with the famous Finnish conducting teacher Jorma Panula, and it showed as she contended with Prokofiev’s monstrously eventful Sinfonia Concertante, Op. 125. Of the newish pieces on the three programs, this was by far the oldest, but also the toughest. Her collaboration with cellist Alisa Weilerstein never seemed score-bound or dutiful, even if her performance reflected no special relationship with this late-period, oft-revised 40-minute piece, in which the composer was packing in as many ideas as possible prior to his 1953 death. Weilerstein’s mighty playing was deeply appreciated, though more important were the insights that helped bring the piece to a more conclusive state than what the composer left.

Alisa Weilerstein was a mighty soloist in Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante.

Stutzmann’s main event — the Dvořák New World” Symphony — would seem like a safer-than-safe choice until you heard how she approached it. The symphony has been a pillar in her repertoire since her 2015 U.S. debut and has evolved into an interpretation much like that of Erich Kleiber, whose 1929 recording is a model of effective tempo modification, a long out-of-style technique that can bring extra life to certain pieces (like this one).

Every idea, every musical paragraph had its own tempo, all deployed with conviction and mostly masterful handling of transitions. A few moments threatened to come unglued, which told me that Stutzmann was pushing the orchestra to the exciting edge of its comfort zone. With first and second violin sections divided on each side of the conductor — plus the Kleiber influence, heard in a recording made 36 years after the symphony’s premiere — might Stutzmann have been going for a historically informed performance?

No doubt her background as a singer contributed to the narrative sense that she brought to Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture, which crested beautifully, thanks to her giving extra attention to the horn writing. Like most artists, Stutzmann can’t necessarily be held to the standard of this debut; I heard some lifeless Don Giovanni excerpts months back with the Philadelphia Orchestra. But if the peak achieved with her Dvořák is a possibility, I’ll take my chances on whatever she conducts.