Heras-Casado right at home in impressive Philharmonic debut

Thu Apr 03, 2014 at 1:18 pm
Pablo Heras-Casado made his New York Philharmonic debut Wednesday night.

Pablo Heras-Casado made his New York Philharmonic debut Wednesday night.

Pablo Heras-Casado is principal conductor of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, so that makes him as a New York musician. But the paucity of that group’s concerts has made him a sub rosa presence in the musical life of the city since his appointment in 2011.

This season, then, has felt something like a slow and impressive awakening, as Heras-Casado made his Metropolitan Opera debut with Rigoletto, and took the podium in front of the New York Philharmonic for the first time Wednesday night.

The range and depth of his performances and recordings to this point—including accomplished collaborations with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, ICE, and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra—demonstrate his excellence as a musician. His winning Rigoletto drove that home and Wednesday’s Philharmonic performance sealed it. His combination of taste, technique and musical intelligence transforms ordinary-seeming programs into memorable events.

Heras-Casado eschews a baton, and with his simple gestural style, it felt like he and the Philharmonic have been partners for years, moving easy and quickly from gentle phrases to intense power. His beat is utterly clear, and the playing held together all evening, easily and securely, in the trickiest syncopated music.

Overture, concerto, so-called ‘evening-length’ symphony after intermission all add up to the clichéd modern orchestra concert. But details matter, and in this one the slots were filled with Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes, the Bartók Piano Concerto No. 3 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. Call it cliché busting.

Peter Serkin

Peter Serkin

Peter Serkin and Heras-Casado are an ideal pair, sharing the values of precision and clarity in their music-making, necessities for a coherent performance of Bartók’s concerto, one of his strangest and most fascinating orchestral scores.

The bucolic opening Allegro goes against type for the composer, with music full of grace and humor. There are stabs at neo-Baroque gestures and phrases directly descended from the Hungarian and Romanian folk music Bartók collected as an ethnomusicologist.

Bartók, like Shostakovich, resists meaning. But where the Russian composer feints at and evades a specific expression, Bartók is like Buster Keaton—-obdurately stone-faced, leaving listeners on their own to ascribe significance to the music.

The Piano Concerto No. 3 rummages through his musical interests—the second movement is built around the call and response of a simple string line and series of modulating piano chords that sound like Bartók contemplating the Classical era. There is a cadenza that sounds dutiful at first then develops substantial sturm und drang. The cosmopolitan finale, with its Gershwin-esque jauntiness and flourish, is breezy.

Serkin was an excellent protagonist, not just in his hands but in his head. This concerto demands that the soloist handle a lot of ideas, and Serkin moved easily from a light touch to power, presenting the notes with utmost transparency and a real feel for the shape of Bartók’s harmonies. He, and Heras-Casado, gave the feeling of providing the right weight on each passage, not rigging the game, and letting the music speak for itself (or rather, letting Bartók gaze coolly at the listener).

The other star musicians of the night were the Philharmonic players. This was easily one of their most beautifully played concerts of recent seasons. Perhaps there is some auditory illusion developing, but the orchestra sounds as if it has discovered its own particular sound, a combination of muscularity and precision.

Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” are as evocative as any scene-setting music in the opera repertoire, standing as pure abstract music that still works as a powerful, condensed narrative of the drama.

Along with the gorgeous harmonies and involving phrases, Britten uses orchestration to evoke mood, from the silvery strings and flutes that reveal the bright clarity of the day, to the bright colors of the borough in action, all the way through the savagery of the storm, and a lament for the tragedy that will come.

The music is less a structure of melody and harmony than a collection of scenes, and the Philharmonic projected the images with rich, complex sound and an organic feeling for how the music moves through time. The weight of the rising sun in the horns and low brass seemed to overflow out of the sea, rising like a wave. Moonlight was full of empathy and pathos, the Storm fervently violent.

Recent concerts show the Philharmonic has an idiomatic Nielsen sound, and last night they proved they have a tremendous Shostakovich sound as well: musically refined phrases, controlled quiet intensity, overpowering force. The dark, beautiful opening movement had a perfect pace, a broad and sensitive flow of dynamics, and the quietly insistent forward pulse that the music demands. Heras-Casado maintained terrific pianissimos and simply powered through the lack of resonance in the hall in the loud passages, which was viscerally exciting.

The second movement was characterized by fast tempo and razor-sharp rhythms with an intensity so great it was on the very edge of being unhinged. In the third movement, the playing perfectly captured Shostakovich’s particularly mysterious expression: the music is full of mockery, but of whom? The recently deceased Stalin? The Composer’s Union? Shostakovich himself? The difference between Bartók and Shostakovich is that the former would simply stare in response, while the latter would just say “yes.”

The orchestral playing was of the highest order, with the brass section playing fabulously and stellar contributions from flutist Robert Langevin, oboist Liang Wang, clarinetist Stephen Williamson, bassoonist Judith LeClair and principal horn Philip Meyers.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. Friday, and 8 p.m. Saturday. nyphil.org

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