A changing of the guard was expected on the world’s largest orchestra podiums on Friday. Daniel Barenboim, 80, longtime music director of the Berlin State Opera, announced that he would step down at the end of the month due to his deteriorating health.
A potential generational shift was looming in the New York Philharmonic as well. The previous evening, 37-year-old Santtu-Matias Rouvali had led the community in the spirit of a sharp elf as one of the leading candidates to take over when 62-year-old Jaap van Zweden left at the end of next season.
Rouvali faces tough competition—not least from Gustavo Dudamel, 41, who arrived in New York this spring for Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, a classic music director showcase and considered the favorite of the position.
It’s no coincidence, however, that Rouvali is the only Philharmonic guest conductor to receive a two-week concert this season. Following the current work schedule of Rossini, Magnus Lindberg and Beethoven, Anna Thorvaldsdottir is directing Prokofiev’s music and – like Mahler, his main assignment – Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” which begins next Thursday.
The fact that each of these programs includes a new piece co-commissioned by the Philharmonic Orchestra is an added sign of trust and respect for Rouvali, head conductor of the Philharmonic in London: Thorvaldsdottir’s “Catamorphosis” and Lindberg’s Piano Concerto No. 3 – bless him for being one of the few contemporary composers who prefer plain, simple concerto titles – with the calmly awesome Yuja Wang as soloist.
Rouvali at David Geffen Hall on Thursday was also a calm and straightforward guide throughout the piece – but this piece came off as choppy and a little baggy. The meter marks of the score are precisely measured for pulse changes that are not audibly perceived as slow-to-fast contrasts of pace; This may be why Lindberg arrogantly described the work as a concerto of three concertos rather than three parts.
But while this is an impressive technical feat, the whole thing registers to the listener as a somewhat homogeneous, roughly half-hour-long raid of rich chromatic nostalgia, the stripes of which are reminiscent of Korngold-style golden age soundtracks. (The modernist glow on a late-Romantic spirit has become Lindberg’s hallmark.) Like the Groundhog Day show, where a House speaker voted this week, the performance felt like hearing the same concerto over and over.
If this repetition added some urgency, the piece wasn’t exactly heavy either. Moment by moment, passage by passage, the music is not heavy. Lindberg keeps the orchestra airy, often adding complexity by dividing the strings into stronger harmonies than ever before instead of using denser instrumentation or louder volume. And the eerie solo part – especially in Wang’s cold hands – comes out as mercurial and subtle, integrating with the general textures and restrained even in the heated parts of the cadence towards the end of the first episode.
Lindberg never falls short of art, as in the example of the cadenza melting silky from soft plush strings and reuniting with the pianist so quietly and intelligently a minute or so later. The shadows at the beginning of the second part are organically transformed into broad, solemn splendor reminiscent of Debussy’s “La Mer,” with candied glockenspiel passages beautifully woven into the gold string of a small group of violins. The third act has a magnificent playfulness, punctuated by brass barks.
But overall the effect of the piece is quiet and airy, which is striking given the broad, Rachmaninoff-esque sweep of Lindberg’s musical movements.
One of a full line-up of conductors accompanying Wang over the coming months as he tours with the work, which premiered in San Francisco in October, Rouvali fits in with his clean and objective style. There is a conscience in Rouvali that can turn into honesty, as I felt a year ago when she conducted the Philharmonic Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. And Rossini’s Thursday’s “Semiramide” Overture lacked the impetus that constantly accumulates even in lyrical passages, which is why the piece exists; The souffle never really rose.
But in Beethoven’s Second Symphony—a still somewhat underrated classic—it was excellent, with its deliberate, even careful direction, providing an elegant, stylish interpretation. I am seldom more clearly but sensitively aware of Beethoven’s most visionary passages here: the orchestra reconstructs itself misty towards the end of the first movement, the shapeless clouds of harmony in the finale.
Under Rouvali, the second movement was sincere and restrained, but gradually relaxed, even reaching a charming gracefulness; third, it achieved grace, never rushing enthusiastic rhythms. This conductor is not short of breath and could probably do with a little more vitality. But when he avoids simplicity, his common sense can seem like maturity.
New York Philharmonic
This program is repeated until Tuesday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org.