Gardner impresses with varied program in Philharmonic debut

Fri Apr 27, 2018 at 2:03 pm
Edward Gardner conducted the New York Philharmonic Thursday at Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Edward Gardner conducted the New York Philharmonic Thursday at Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

The New York Philharmonic’s Thursday night concert featured a first half full of bright, airy tonalities, courtesy of Sibelius, Debussy, and a guest conductor, Edward Gardner, who did justice to both in his Philharmonic debut, drawing a perfectly suited clean, shining sound from the ensemble.

The opening item was an unusual one, the 1906 “Symphonic Fantasy” Pohjola’s Daughter. One of a number of pieces in Sibelius’s catalogue of works drawing on Scandinavian folklore, Pohjola’s Daughter takes as its subject the tale of an old man whose advances are spurned by a nymph.

It is a vivid, colorful piece, bringing the listener into its world of myth with ethereal textures and driving the heroic aspects of the narrative with soaring orchestration. The ensemble got away from Gardner a bit when he was managing larger forces, but on the whole this was a strong reading, creating a delicate mesh of sound with careful balancing.

Debussy’s Fantasie for piano and orchestra was of a similar sonic palette, with its gentle blurring and reflective sheen. The soloist, Leif Ove Andsnes, is a celebrated interpreter of Beethoven, among others, and a superb, cerebral player who approaches his work with deep musical understanding. His reading of the Fantasie was perhaps a little too studied, in fact, with phrases finely shaped but a sense of spontaneity sometimes lacking. The second movement, though marked “Lento e molto espressivo,” sounded more stately than passionate. The finale was the most successful, where he captured the rushing energy of the music with sparkling brilliance.

Andsnes’s encore was more Debussy — a rhapsodic account of the evocative Jardins sous la pluie, from Estampes. There’s an almost Lisztian romantic drive in the piece’s torrid opening, which Andsnes blended masterfully with Debussy’s gauzy sonic hues.

The real concert staple of the evening was Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. A piece this familiar wants a truly bold interpretation, and Gardner’s reading was, sadly, a little staid. But what it lacked in daring it recouped in execution — Gardner had the Philharmonic playing with commitment and polish.

The trajectory of the first movement was beautifully managed, building grandeur out of the music’s mysterious beginnings. To the Giuoco delle coppie Gardner brought sly charm, emphasizing the coy sensuality of the bouncing rhythms underneath the playful dancing of each instrumental pair.

The Elegy pulsed with inner power, as Gardner drew a burning, raw intensity out of the strings and balanced it with the lithe turning of the woodwinds. The fourth movement, the Intermezzo interrotto, was cheery enough on its surface, but seemed to be hiding something darker underneath. There was certainly a sense of humor in the aggressive, jagged articulations that he emphasized, as in the mocking nasal tones of the orchestra’s sound, but it could hardly be called good-natured.

The Philharmonic brought a fabulous frenetic energy to the Finale, demonstrating pinpoint precision even in its most treacherous, tumultuous moments. The acoustic brightness of the hall intensified the gleam of the orchestra’s sound to an almost deafening blare, but the pace of the conclusion was thrilling, even if the tone was rather cold.

Thursday’s program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday at Long Island University’s Tilles Center and 8 p.m. Saturday at Geffen Hall; 212-875-5656.


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