Van Zweden, Josefowicz and Philharmonic brilliantly serve music, old and new

Fri Oct 05, 2018 at 12:45 pm
Leila Josefowicz performed Stravinsky's Violin Concerto with Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic Thursday night. Photo: Chris Lee

Leila Josefowicz performed Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto with Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic Thursday night. Photo: Chris Lee

Thursday night’s New York Philharmonic concert, led by Jaap van Zweden, was something of a generational affair, with the past and present talking with each other in the round-robin, non-linear way that is only possible in music. The four works presented in David Geffen Hall came from three composers—Louis Andriessen, Stravinsky, and Debussy. 

Andriessen’s Agamemnon was a Philharmonic commission receiving its world premiere. The performance opened the evening and kicked off the orchestra’s two-week “Art of Andriessen” series focusing on the eminent Dutch composer, who was in attendance.

Even for a composer who has a large number of dramatic works to his credit, Agamemnon offers the freshness of new ideas. One of those is a generous view of Agamemnon, who Andriessen admitted in a program note is usually seen as a villain.

The music took the form of an overture, with sections laid out like a story, beginning with a trumpet fanfare set high in the instruments’ range. The Philharmonic trumpets played this with perfect tuning.

Agamemnon has both the composer’s typical strengths and weaknesses. There was his shining, tart orchestration and powerful pulse. There was also awkward jazz, funk, and rock rhythms that seemed out of place with the context he was establishing. Most prominent and pleasing were long, graceful, quasi-romantic lines for the strings, and a handful of gorgeous, sinuous, characterful woodwind solos. These were beautifully played by the Philharmonic musicians and helped leave a strong, lingering impression of this intriguing new work.

Stravinsky is a paragon for Andriessen, who wrote an excellent book, The Apollonian Clockwork: On Stravinsky. The extraordinary Violin Concerto is one of the greatest of Stravinsky’s numerous masterpieces, with a dazzling and gripping surface laid over tremendously sophisticated composing.

The key feature is the solo part which is dauntingly virtuosic in a way most audiences may not notice—the hard work is done by the left hand with quadruple stops, difficult hand positions, quick changes to harmonics. 

Soloist Leila Josefowicz had complete command over all these technical challenges, so much so that she brought out a broader and deeper musical expression than one is used to hearing in the work. Her playing was jaunty, impetuous, and at times sardonic in the fast, outer movements—she playfully teased the shape and rhythms of the phrases in the opening Toccata—and the colors she produced in the slow middle movements carried a razor-sharp lyricism that had more than a little bit of anguish, especially in the subtly wrenching Aria II.

With excellent accompaniment from the orchestra, this was an exceptional performance, and Josefowicz’s musicianship was a perfect companion to Stravinsky’s art. The composer famously said that music was powerless to express anything, yet was a man full of ideas and experiences. One must fit together his notes, and the highest expectation is that one will discover great things doing that. Josefowicz surely discovered great things Thursday night.

Philharmonic president and CEO Deborah Borda came on stage with the violinist during her last ovation, to announce that Josefowicz was the 23rd recipient of the Avery Fisher Prize, with a $100,000 award and her name chiseled—that day—on a grand plaque in the Hall’s lobby.

After intermission, Stravinsky talked to Debussy via the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, written in honor of the French composer after his death in 1918. One of Stravinsky’s most unusual and compelling pieces, the Symphonies has tremendously astringent orchestration, and a form that is at once mysterious and rigidly ritualized. The Philharmonic winds, including brass, had a warm and colored sound, each hue with an edge of chiaroscuro. As in the Violin Concerto, this dedication to making the notes on the page as musical as possible opened a window into Stravinsky’s profound and barely contained sorrow. This was one of the orchestra’s best-played concerts of recent seasons.

Debussy’s La Mer, which concluded the program, was spectacular without being showy. Everything was there—color, pulse, shape, energy. The textures were so transparent that one could marvel at the great precision of rhythm and articulation in the strings while relishing the winds and brass cascading above. 

That one never noticed van Zweden during this wonderful performance was credit to how well the conductor prepared this lovely, joyous, and affecting concert.

This program will be repeated 2 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday.

One Response to “Van Zweden, Josefowicz and Philharmonic brilliantly serve music, old and new”

  1. Posted Oct 07, 2018 at 10:35 pm by Clint Padgitt

    May I mention the beautiful, long soprano saxophone solo in Agamemnon? This is an instrument that is not often heard in classical orchestras, and its use here added a lot to the eclectic flavor of the work. Lots of other wind solos too, plus very imaginative percussion including vibraphone and xylophone. This is the world premier of a wonderful work.

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