Sørensen premiere elevates de Waart’s mixed Philharmonic program

Fri Dec 01, 2017 at 12:36 pm
Emanuel Ax performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 with Edo de Waart and the New York Philharmonic Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Emanuel Ax performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 with Edo de Waart and the New York Philharmonic Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Thursday’s program of the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Edo de Waart featured a world premiere and a musical rarity. The premiere was Bent Sørensen’s evocative piece Evening Land, commissioned by the orchestra. The rarity was a mediocre performance of a Mozart concerto by the esteemed pianist Emanuel Ax.

Sørensen’s commission came by way of Per Nørgård, the dean of Danish composers, who recently received the Philharmonic’s Marie-Josée Kravis Prize for New Music. Declining the commission that came with the award, Nørgård referred the orchestra instead to his colleague and former pupil Sørensen, who, while a composer of note in Denmark, was probably not expecting a call from the New York Philharmonic.

Unusually, in this era of joint commissions involving several orchestras on different continents, Evening Land was commissioned solely by the Philharmonic, and Sørensen (just named winner of the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for his L’Isola della Città) evidently aimed to compose music that reflected its sponsor.

Appropriately enough in this season of celebrating a long-ago music director, the composer cited New York Philharmonic recordings as a vivid memory from his childhood, and wrote that he still hears in today’s Philharmonic “this sound that comes all the way from Bernstein.”

We all carry inside us the child we once were, and by his account in the program, Sørensen’s piece arose from a sensory connection between recent and long-ago experiences — specifically, two views at dusk: one of a near-empty field he saw as a boy and a much later one from a balcony high above New York City.

Sørensen is known more for evanescent, soft-focus nature imagery in his music than for anything resembling a New York state of mind, so this premiere brought with it even more curiosity than usual about what the composer might come up with.

The answer was a piece in which, with perfect dream logic, a dark landscape emerged out of a nearly-inaudible violin solo and little smears of string sound, and then Leonard Bernstein showed up, in the form of chattering maracas and explosive Latin rhythms. The Lenny-vision disappeared as suddenly as it came, as the light faded on the evening scene.

Conductor de Waart and the players gave a sensitive rendering of Sørensen’s lapidary score, in both its subtle daubs of orchestral color and its sudden bursts of activity. One imagines Bernstein on the podium might have rocked the fast parts more than the Dutch maestro did. In any case, Evening Land proved well worth additional hearings.

In contrast, the familiar Mozart and Brahms works that followed seemed to suffer from lack of attention in rehearsal. The Philharmonic seemed to be on its default settings, notably that old bugaboo, too-loud horns.

Just when one thinks the old “it’s only Mozart” school of interpretation is dead and buried, it pops up again, sometimes in the most unexpected places. In the draggy tempo and lax phrasing with which de Waart opened the D minor Concerto, K. 466, the turbulent, urgent music that galvanized the young Beethoven was nowhere to be found.

One waited for pianist Ax to enter and take charge, moving the needle toward some real drama. Instead, he got with the conductor’s nonchalant program, and the performance became a bland run-through, displaying Ax’s fluent technique and limpid tone, but to no particular expressive end. The fiery cadenza Beethoven composed for the first movement sounded unmotivated by what preceded it. In the back of one’s mind, one heard Bernstein exclaiming in a long-ago television broadcast, “Mozart is not a snuff-box composer!”

Ax’s singing tone and sensitive voicing were heard to advantage in the central Romanze, but unsteady tempos — speeding up when the music was loud and slowing down when it was soft, and even wobbling within a phrase — robbed the music of impact. Similar unsteadiness blurred the rocketing theme of the finale, although Ax and the woodwinds got together for some crisp dialogue here and there.

In the end, one had to think the standing applause that greeted this casual performance was more of a lifetime-achievement award for the popular pianist than a recognition of anything that had just happened.

One can tell a lot from the opening bars of Brahms’s Second Symphony. If the rocking theme in three-to-a-bar is played tenderly but exactly in time, you know you’re in for a rhythmically alive performance that will sweep you along with the composer’s pastoral yet bold vision.

If not, you’re likely to get a struggling affair like the one on Thursday, in which rhythm went in and out of focus, and tended to plod even when it was correct. Instead of natural surges of emotion, there was forcing the issue and fist-shaking, and one was painfully aware of why some classical music fans don’t like Brahms.

The slow movement developed some nice stretchy phrases when it got going, but suffered from the kind of balance problems that are typically fixed in rehearsal. Blaring horns obscured the cellos with the main theme, and some woodwind solos were missing in action.

Things picked up considerably in the last two movements. The Allegretto was satisfyingly “con grazioso” (as the German composer ungrammatically marked it), with a light and peppy Presto episode. The exuberant finale was on another Philharmonic default, a good one this time, the kind of New York “go” that Bernstein loved to whip up.

The Philharmonic has played this piece often — most recently in May of last year — and one had the feeling that its success Thursday was more a matter of the horse knowing the way than of who was in the driver’s seat.

Maybe the orchestra should discontinue its custom of playing Bernstein’s Candide Overture with no conductor at all. It makes one wonder what’s going on at other times.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. nyphil.org; 212-875-5656.

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