Kavakos brings calm authority to Sibelius with Philharmonic

Fri Mar 18, 2016 at 1:05 pm
Leonidas Kavakos performed Sibelius's Violin Concerto with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic Thursday night. Photo: Chris Lee

Leonidas Kavakos performed Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic Thursday night. Photo: Chris Lee

Leonidas Kavakos’s appearance in front of the New York Philharmonic Thursday night might have been a preview of things to come now that the violinist is next season’s artist in residence. Playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto with a calm and deep musical authority, and meshing easily with the orchestra and conductor Alan Gilbert, one certainly hopes so.

The first half was dedicated to the Violin Concerto, the second to Shostakovich’s The Age of Gold Suite, and the New York premiere of Karawane, from composer in residence Esa-Pekka Salonen—a colorful set of pieces, made memorable by the marvelous and profound performance of the concerto.

This was yet another excellent Sibelius outing from Gilbert and the Philharmonic. The performance reinforced the outstanding qualities familiar from previous concerts this winter: mature, exceptional instrumental playing, and rhetoric without drama—bringing out the greatest beauty and deepest feeling in the music.

In contrast to the full-blooded and full-bodied Sibelius heard from the Minnesota Orchestra  in Carnegie Hall two weeks ago—and to his own recording made in the early 1990s, Kavakos played with understated refinement. This is often said to be an objective interpretation, letting the notes speak for themselves. Thursday night, it was care and control in search of underlying truths, shaping the form of the music with an emphasis placed on a few judicious moments.

For Gilbert and the orchestra, this meant a long view of dynamics and shape. Kavakos played as if he were holding in his hands something both delicate and powerful. He took care to articulate the music clearly and simply, not because he saw nothing more than the notes, but because he found so much inside them. On top of the delicate orchestral playing, he opened with a spine-tingling simplicity that remained consistent for the entire performance. From lovely, unadorned pitches, he could expand to greater color and vibration with outsized expressive effect.

His phrasing emphasized the downbeat and exact rhythms, and he played all the way through sustained notes, letting them grow to a fuller expression. Most impressive was his patience, which built sublime tension in the cadenzas.

The modesty with which Kavakos broached the playing of an encore belied what turned out to be a brief but wonderful performance of the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3. His use of rubato, and his ornaments and embellishments—which grew increasingly improvisational while remaining idiomatic—were superb. This was an encore that left one to imagine that a full performance of the work would be astonishing.

After a lively performance of Shostakovich’s ballet suite, with terrific solo contributions from concertmaster Frank Huang and soprano saxophonist Steve Kenyon, the Philharmonic played the new Salonen piece, of which the orchestra was co-commissioner.

Karawane is entertaining and grandiose. Written for orchestra and chorus (the New York Choral Artists, with fine preparation from Joseph Flummerfelt), the title and the sung text come from a poem by Dada poet Hugo Ball. Salonen admitted in introductory remarks that the poem is (Dadaist) nonsense, but pointed out that words, when sung, lead to narrative interpretations.

Though brazenly cinematic, the narrative feel of Karawane loses out to density over a 30-minute duration. Though not soundtrack music, it does evoke visual scenes that elicit images in the mind’s eye. One passage, with the women in the chorus crooning angelically, triggered a scene of haggard and exhausted explorers hacking their way through the jungle, only to stumble on a utopian tropical paradise

There are entertaining, colorful bits of music that seem inspired by other composers, like Ennio Morricone, Philip Glass, and John Adams. In particular, sections seem like responses to Harmonium. Salonen embraces clichés with a knowing wink, but they add bigness to a piece that is already overblown.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. nyphil.org

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