From Rear Perspective, Rotterdam Philharmonic Creates A Potent Sound

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Lahav Shani has been principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic since 2018. (Photo by Guido Pijper)

ORLANDO — The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the Netherlands’ two ensembles known internationally, alongside Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, is a powerhouse of calibrated precision and dynamic thrust. Led by the young Israeli conductor Lahav Shani, the orchestra made a sensational appearance at Steinmetz Hall on March 6, part of a short tour of the Eastern U.S. that concluded at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center after four performances in Florida. The soloist traveling with them was Daniil Trifonov, who performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat (Jeunehomme). 

It was my first time sitting in the grand-tier chorus section at Steinmetz, behind the orchestra and facing the conductor. Naturally, you have to adjust your ears for the booming of the nearby bass drum, timpani, and brass, especially in the climaxes; otherwise, the superb acoustics of Orlando’s newest hall, at the Dr. Phillips Center, are almost as impressive as on the other side of the stage. The rear grand tier was actually a perfect place for appreciating the Mozart concerto at close range, with its scaled-down instrumentation, compared to that of Arvo Pärt’s Swansong, which opened the concert, and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.  

A jovial Trifonov made his entrance, which comes early in this concerto, with a little lilt that characterized his interpretation, notably in the outer movements. There was something mannered in the way his left hand sometimes jolted down then slightly hovered over the keyboard, though you could hardly fault him for the freshness he imparted to the music. In the first-movement cadenza, he slowed down into a weighted rubato touch that hinted at the minor-key turn of the slower second movement, which he adorned with shapely cantabile phrases that were organically blended into the fabric of the orchestra. 

Lahav Shani

Poised and self-assured, the Russian pianist made a lasting impression as a master of making virtuosic pianism seem effortless. So animated and vitalizing was his take — so smooth and silky his chordal figurations and keyboard runs — that you could excuse him for not coming back onstage for an encore.  

Shani, who is music director of the Israel Philharmonic, has been principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic since 2018, following Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s 10-year tenure. (Shani goes to the Munich Philharmonic next, starting in 2026.) He’s a superb conductor, distinguished by exactitude and composure; there is no showmanship, no affectation.

Shani is intimately attuned to the orchestra in the way he circles his arm or gently flicks his wrist to mold his phrasing. Sometimes he bows and gently moves both hands in a forward rolling motion to indicate a flowing tempo, almost becoming one with the players.

Facing him, you could appreciate a certain scowl or smile here and there to convey the various moods of the scenes that Prokofiev’s score captures, originally for ballet. You could vividly hear the players’ response to his every move; if you know a symphony well, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, say, and watch a video of Shani conducting it with the audio muted, you could almost follow along just by watching him. 

For his selections from Romeo and Juliet, he conducted with no score and no baton, summoning with a fierce right hand the angry blasts from the brasses in the beginning of “The Montagues and the Capulets.” In the mellower passages of the “Young Juliet” section, there was gorgeous work from the sprightly flutes and from concertmaster Marieke Blankestijn. Other highlights were the undulating winds over dulcet strings in the “Balcony Scene,” especially the way Shani shaped the diminuendo toward the end of the section, and a clangorous “Death of Tybalt.” In the final “Tomb” scene, the strings took on a mournful, almost bitter tone, with anguished cries from the horns and funereal trombones and tuba. 

The evening was a great addition to the visiting orchestra series at Steinmetz Hall, which this season also included the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, and, coming up on March 22, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields