From water to desert, NY Philharmonic wraps season in style 

Fri Jun 09, 2023 at 1:49 pm
Jaap van Zweden conducted the New York Philharmonic in music of Britten, Takemitsu and John Luther Adams Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

It has now been a full season for the New York Philharmonic in the redesigned David Geffen Hall—testing the new space and hearing how the acoustic best fits with the orchestra. 

The Philharmonic has gradually, steadily found its way to this sound, culminating in EARTH,” the final subscription program of the season that opened Thursday night with music director Jaap van Zweden at the podium.

The program was a set of spectacular sounding modern and contemporary works: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten; Toro Takemitsu’s I hear the water dreaming; and the New York premiere of John Luther Adams’ Become Desert. The performances were often as spectacular as the compositions themselves, showing how virtuosic the orchestra is and how close it is to mastering the new hall.

Two water works and one about land were part of a consideration of how human civilization has made the planet’s climate unstable—both wetter and drier. The program proved timely considering how smoke from Canadian wildfires made the air in New York City hazardous earlier this week. 

The Four Sea Interludes came off as an orchestral showpiece. The details in the Philharmonic’s playing were impressive, with a sense of exactness and command over things like the balance between woodwinds and harp, the keen edge of colors that Britten put into his orchestration. The first two sections were somewhat lacking in a sense of atmosphere and expression—the former a property of the hall, which is still very bright, the latter perhaps lost in the focus on tackling each note with technical perfection. 

But there’s simply too much feeling inside this music to keep it at bay. The achy, hesitant throb of “Moonlight” reached deeply and had a powerful feeling. The frenetic “Storm” had muscular, high-level playing, and also hit what is still the limit in the hall, that massed high-volume high frequencies tend to shatter and overpower everything below, with the paradoxical effect that the orchestra sounds like it is receding as it plays more loudly.

New York Philharmonic principal flutist Robert Lagevin was the soloist in Toru Takemitsu’s I hear the water dreaming Thursday night. Photo by Chris Lee

This was not an issue with Takemitsu’s lovely, personal exploration of the sound world that Debussy created. This is a mini-concerto for flute, in one movement, and principal Robert Langevin was the soloist. His tone was sweet and shining, with elegant legato phrasing.

Takemitsu’s sounds and colors are delicate, and this was a careful, loving performance from the orchestra. Dynamics were supple and there was the sense that the ensemble and Langevin were listening to each other and in a real dialogue. Though the sound remained bright and clearly defined, there was a greater sense of atmosphere, perhaps because the music was quieter all around, and one was drawn in.

After intermission came the desert. 

The program offered an intelligent segue between Adams’ earlier Become Ocean and Become River—the first two in this trilogy—and this recent piece, a co-commission from the Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony, San Diego Symphony, and Rotterdam Philharmonic.

Where Adams’ previous two Become pieces capture the feeling of transitions and change states, like ice melting, Become Desert in a way brings him around to the static landscape works that made his reputation, like In The White Silence and Earth and the Great Weather

His landscape, though, has moved from the ice and tundra of Alaska to the desert, and Become Desert is a like a still image, each measure filling in details like pixels in a photograph.

This is a dazzling score with an enthralling power. This performance was easily a high point of the Philharmonic’s season, one of the most musically rich and expressively skillful one has heard from this orchestra. The piece defines a long arch, starting and ending with sustained, quiet, high strings and tuned percussion, swelling with shifting slabs of instrumental groups—including voices—in the long middle. The music is spatalized, with brass, percussion, and the voices in the balcony to the sides and back of the audience.

Adams is a patient composer, letting things take their own time, and van Zweden focused on that pace, smoothly controlling the steadily passing measures and downbeats, letting the sounds come together. The mix of instruments in the hall was truly incredible; one could hear the placement of different groups while also experiencing the sound coming together seamlessly at a central point above the orchestra seats. The thrill of hearing this happen in person was exceeded by the accumulating beauty and power of the music.

This is intensely beautiful and gentle music, especially when played with such mastery. So beautiful and fulfilling, in fact, that it lays bare the unsettling question of, if the desert is this marvelous, shouldn’t we embrace it?

This program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday.

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