A ragged Philharmonic outing under van Zweden in Brahms, Prokofiev

Thu Mar 01, 2018 at 12:59 pm
Yuja Wang performed Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 with Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic Wednesday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Yuja Wang performed Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic Wednesday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Things got off to an unfortunate start for the New York Philharmonic and music director-designate Jaap van Zweden Wednesday night, and improved only fitfully for the rest of the evening.

The gruff opening of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 isn’t the easiest music to make “sound,” but in most performances the listener can at least tell what’s going on. On Wednesday, for whatever reason—tuning, coordination, balance, or some combination of those—the orchestra emitted a sound that was virtually unintelligible as to what chord they were playing or what the theme was.

That proved to be just an extreme example of difficulties that plagued the performances of both the concerto and, following intermission, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. An orchestra that is quite capable of playing with crisp ensemble, lucid sonorities, and rhythmic lift displayed those traits only intermittently on Wednesday.

Van Zweden’s beat looked clear enough from out in the house, but the orchestra’s unfocused sound and tentative phrasing suggested the musicians were having trouble following it. Or perhaps they were “testing” the new boss, as orchestras do sometimes. If the latter, one wished they’d gotten it over with in rehearsal, instead of in front of paying customers. 

Sometimes inspirational playing by the soloist will lift the level of a concerto performance for all involved. But on Wednesday pianist Yuja Wang proved an uncertain trumpet for that purpose.

A formidable technician, she appeared content to fire off each bar of her often-gnarly part, getting louder and softer as required, but not taking the music anywhere in particular. The traits needed to do that—phrasing that’s not just correct but has an audible emotional impulse behind it, and voicing that makes the music sing out—were mostly absent from her playing.

Wang did make quite an impression with the first movement’s fist-shaking octave trills, and later on with some buttery passagework. But her tone tended to go dead when it dipped below forte.

The orchestra’s persistent faults of balance, however, must be laid at the conductor’s doorstep. The wind chords, for example, that overpowered the violins’ theme at the beginning of the concerto’s Adagio went uncorrected. And van Zweden will find, if he hasn’t already, that the Philharmonic horns’ default setting is “too loud”; several strangely voiced chords and a couple of blotted-out wind solos were among their victims Wednesday.

In the finale, as often happens, speed and rhythm pulled the players together, as Brahms swung into his hot Hungarian-dance style. Wang’s shooting out of the gate like Secretariat was perhaps not what the composer meant by “Allegro non troppo,” but it was preferable to the plodding that had prevailed to that point, and it generated a good deal of excitement.

Wang acknowledged the warm applause with a nicely played encore, Mendelssohn’s Song without Words in F-sharp minor, Op. 67, No. 2, and then another, Brahms’s Intermezzo in C-sharp minor, Op. 117, No. 3. The latter was a rather long piece for an encore, and even though applause continued, concertmaster Frank Huang, apparently deciding enough was enough, bounced up from his chair and led the orchestra offstage.

The Prokofiev symphony began like the Brahms, in a miasma of ill-tuned winds and rhythmic confusion. The orchestra subsequently pulled itself together somewhat, but the long first movement seemed to have only two dynamic levels: loud and louder. One began to dread the sound of Christopher S. Lamb’s smartly played snare drum announcing yet another bombastic climax.

The scherzo-like Allegro marcato was plenty allegro, but too thick-toned and ill-coordinated (the winds chronically late) to be very marcato, and the movement’s satirical wit lost its bite. Similarly in the Adagio, the ragged ensemble couldn’t muster much oomph behind its soaring violins or deep surges in tuba and cellos. It took the snare drum and wood block, entering in the middle of the finale, to provide a focal point and drive the symphony to its exciting conclusion.

The Philharmonic and its subscribers have eagerly awaited the firm hand of the orchestra’s dynamic new maestro. As of Wednesday’s performance, the wait is not over.

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


3 Responses to “A ragged Philharmonic outing under van Zweden in Brahms, Prokofiev”

  1. Posted Mar 04, 2018 at 9:51 am by Miles Groth

    I entirely agree with this assessment of the Brahms. One would like to have said there was an exploration of the ambiguities of the score, but given Brahms’ wonderful dashes “hip” throughout his music, what I heard last night was chaos and muddle. Miasma. The star–Ms wang–is always proficient, but seemed disappointed in the collaboration with her orchestra. She is too young for this music. But let that pass.

    I found the Prokofiev to be just what I expect: fun, jazzy, rich inside and here and there so poignant. We have to enjoy music and I think that was Prokofiev’s intention here and elsewhere. And then there’s the connection with film scores, including Prokofiev’s own. Finally, no Prokofiev, no John Williams. (especially of “ET”). Loud and even raucous is fine.

    The references to the famous Bernstein-Gould collaboration in which Gould’s tempos were so slow that Bernstein had to confess to believing in Gould’s genius is all that permitted him to go on with public performances of the Brahms with Gould. Last week was a very different Jaap van Zweden, and the future seems promising for his tenure.

  2. Posted Mar 07, 2018 at 5:09 pm by K Zechner

    When I heard this program on Saturday, there was still some disarray in the orchestra during the Brahms concerto, particularly in its first movement. In the second and third, the orchestra sounded somewhat more consistent and convincing and also more coordinated with the pianist. Yuja Wang impressed more with precision and technical brilliance than with interpretation but then again, this concerto is very challenging for any pianist and probably requires more maturity and experience.

    As for the Prokofiev symphony, I didn’t mind it being on the loud side, as I found the maestro’s interpretation quite convincing and sensitive, bringing out all the various expressions written in the score by this master of the neoclassics.

    Overall a well-rounded and satisfying performance, but more can be expected and hoped for in future venues under van Zweden.

  3. Posted Aug 22, 2018 at 2:51 am by Harold House

    Something is amiss here. Mr. Wright appears to have lost the power of the pen in a longing search for his bathroom mirror baton.

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