Blazing Bartók tops a mixed Philharmonic debut with Orozco-Estrada

Thu Dec 07, 2023 at 12:11 pm
Andrés Orozco-Estrada made his New York Philharmonic podium debut Wednesday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Brandon Patoc

The New York Philharmonic went looking for love in all the wrong places, at least as far as its subject matter was concerned, Wednesday night at David Geffen Hall, with the Colombian conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada on the podium in his Philharmonic debut.

Tchaikovsky’s “star-cross’d lovers” met their fate in his Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy, followed by the amorous but luckless protagonist of Bartók’s scandalous pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin.

Tasty treats alternated with this dark matter, in the form of Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major and Enescu’s spirited Romanian Rhapsody No. 1.

The performance level varied widely, beginning with a rather routine run-through of the familiar Tchaikovsky work that missed most of the suspense and ecstasy of Shakespeare’s play and of the gripping score it inspired in the young composer.

Ragged woodwind entrances marked the rather unfocused opening bars. Orozco-Estrada marshaled the troops for the fast and loud passages, but when the dynamic dropped below forte, the conductor’s posture slumped, and so did the orchestra’s ensemble and energy. Because the last, tragic transformation of the love theme lacked weight, the dramatic thunderbolt of the final page sounded tacked on.

Haydn’s concerto fared better, thanks to soloist Edgar Moreau’s engaged playing in a focused and eloquent performance. The cellist’s tone was bold and clear in all registers, especially the vibrant top. In contrast, the conductor’s smirking and exaggerated gestures—fluttering a hand to indicate a trill, for example—sent an unmistakable “this is fluff” message to players and audience alike.

Edgar Moreau performed Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic Wednesday night. Photo: Brandon Patoc

In the Adagio, Moreau’s taut phrasing maintained expressive tension in all dynamics from forte to pianissimo. The finale could have used more contrast of color and mood, but the cellist’s agile fingerwork and lightning string-crossing gave the evening a welcome jolt of virtuoso energy to cap his impressive Philharmonic debut.

The orchestra responded after intermission with a fiery performance of Bartók’s lurid tale of seduction, robbery and murder. Orozco-Estrada led a beefed-up ensemble, booming with bass drum and tuba, through scenes ranging in mood from furious to spooky to dire. As brasscsneered and strings groaned, the players stayed tightly together through constant changes of meter and tempo, to stunning effect.

Principal clarinetist Anthony McGill earned his solo bow at the end with seductive arpeggios as the Girl lured the Mandarin to his doom and later with a shrieking climax to the desperate final chase scene.

The versatile McGill also led off Enescu’s rhapsody with a humorous drinking song. There is magic to be found in these “just a few tunes thrown together without thinking about it,” as the composer, a Paris-based aspiring modernist, described the piece. True, its catchy folk melodies are irresistible, but there is also something about its modulations and shifts of timbre that is remote, mysterious, and perhaps nostalgic.

Wednesday’s self-consciously perky performance, with much knee-bobbing and hip-swaying on the podium, didn’t always convey much of that atmosphere but at least its energy sent the audience out on a Carpathian mountain high.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

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