Weilerstein is sharp in Philharmonic’s soft-focus program with Kahane

Fri Jan 05, 2018 at 11:48 am
Alisa Wellerstein performed with Jeffrey Kahane and the New York Philharmonic Thursaday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Alisa Wellerstein performed with Jeffrey Kahane and the New York Philharmonic Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

When the Los Angeles-based conductor and pianist Jeffrey Kahane led and soloed with the New York Philharmonic Thursday night, a surf’s-up vibe seemed to descend on snowbound David Geffen Hall.

Mozart piano concerto?  No problem. Tchaikovsky cello showpiece with Alisa Weilerstein?  A walk on the beach. Haydn symphony?  Hey, that’s cool.

And don’t get your baggies in a twist about whether the woodwinds or the strings are playing together. Too much like school, man.

Performing with less preparation than planned—Thursday morning’s open rehearsal having been canceled owing to a snowstorm—the orchestra sounded somewhat disoriented and out of focus for most of the evening.

Such problems aren’t uncommon when one person tries to play the solo as well as lead the orchestra, as Kahane did in Mozart’s Concerto No. 17 in G major, K. 453. That kind of divided attention rarely produces the best results.

But the closing piece, Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 in B-flat major, was a straight shot for conductor and players, no distractions—and the best the Philharmonic could muster was a kind of generalized energy. This organization that delivered a whip-smart Messiah under Andrew Manze just last month couldn’t put the snap in this snappiest of composers.

A bright spot in the evening was cellist Weilerstein’s turn in Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. Known for meatier fare than this, she brought considerable passion and virtuoso fire to the task, but not so much as to overwhelm Tchaikovsky’s graceful charm, and her caramel tone complemented this score nicely.

The orchestra under Kahane partnered Weilerstein sensitively, though a little too loudly now and then in the winds.

Photo: Chris Lee

Photo: Chris Lee

Kahane’s conception of the Mozart concerto showed promise in the opening pages, as the orchestra laid out the contrasting themes in a lively but unhurried tempo. After he began playing, however, the orchestra playing grew tentative and late entrances became all too common.

As pianist, Kahane sounded fluent and pearly but a little dim, not helped by the sound of a lidless piano, pointed upstage so he could face the orchestra, in this large, acoustically ungenerous hall.

Pianist and orchestra played the concerto’s Andante with expressive freedom, but not much sing. Once they settled on a tempo for the variations finale, they came through with some of their best playing of the night, crackling with wit in the closing Presto.

There’s nothing like a Presto to marshal the muscles, as the lively finale of Haydn’s symphony again demonstrated. Prior to that, the players’ soft attacks doomed many of this composer’s pithy remarks, and the minuet and trio seemed to be dancing in molasses. But the Adagio cantabile movement did gain focus and direction as it went on.

For the Haydn, a fortepiano replaced the grand piano at center stage, but Kahane conducted mostly standing up, sitting only to fill in with chords here and there and for the charming little keyboard solo near the close, Haydn’s “signature” in the symphony’s lower right corner.

A final note on concert deportment: Apparently the post-performance hug between conductor and soloist is now as de rigueur as the bows—to the point where, following the Tchaikovsky, Kahane and Weilerstein attempted it despite standing on separate platforms several feet apart.

At least the results were amusing, which is more than can be said for the orchestra’s arm’s-length relationship with the music for much of the evening.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday, and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. nyphil.org; 212-875-5656.


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