REVIEW: New York, Meet Jaap
September 20, 2018
By Brian Taylor
The 2018-2019 season, and a new era for the New York Philharmonic, began with a gala concert at David Geffen Hall on Thursday evening. Entitled "New York, Meet Jaap," Jaap van Zweden made his debut with the orchestra as its new music director, following his decade-long tenure with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and it was a thrilling evening of music making. The concert also marked the beginning of another harbinger of this new era, the appointment of Deborah Borda as President and CEO of the Philharmonic. The institution's two new leaders are poised to keep it buzzing into the future, writing on the orchestra's website that they plan "to reconceive the Orchestra’s engagement with timely social issues, connect with New York City, and redouble the Philharmonic’s commitment to innovation, collaboration, and new music."
In a strong gesture toward that future, the concert tonight began with the world premiere of a piece by a living American woman composer, Ashley Fure, entitled Filament. Born in 1982, Fure is already highly acclaimed, having won many prizes and commissions for major orchestras. A visit to her extensive website reveals scores of the highest academic order, extensively detailed, and thoroughly original.
Her creations are steeped in the aesthetic of installation art and multimedia, and she explores the physical aspects of music making, not hemmed in by any of the constraints of tradition. Fure has succeeded in creating a system of notation for the sculpture of sound. With no recognizable harmony, rhythm, or melody at all, her compositions are nonetheless music, in that they explore the movement of air through time, posing questions, and providing the illusion of meaning. Filament employs a trio of amplified solo musicians -- bassoon (placed prominently in the audience), trumpet, and bass -- and a mobile chorus of 15, the Constellation Chor, under the direction of Marisa Michelson.
The chorus wielded custom-designed megaphones, which both amplified and directionally focused the sound, and the instrumentalists were called upon to play in unusual ways, such as scraping the bass strings with a credit card. The percussion setup required pieces of styrofoam, and three waterphones. All of this combined into an atmospheric soup, swirling around and engulfing the audience, saved from tedium by dynamic lighting effects in the hall, and the surprise appearance of the choir, and their megaphones, in the aisles of the audience. In an interview on WNYC, van Zweden admitted “it was not always easy to sell contemporary music in Dallas." Clearly, the maestro is committed to the importance new music in the world of classical music, and trusts that New York's audiences are open and ready to have our minds stretched.
Brilliant Russian piano virtuoso Daniil Trifonov then joined the orchestra for Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto in G. The effervescent piece was composed in 1929, clearly bearing the mark of Ravel's recent visit to North America, and with its jazzy harmonies, and showy pianistic writing, might be the French composer's answer to George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Trifonov, as ever, dives headfirst into the depths of the score, approaching the piece from within, examining and reacting from below the surface.
The serene second movement, Adagio assai, a long-spun single-line melody and simple oom-pah-pah accompaniment, is frequently played with a glassy delicacy, but Trifonov probed deeper, responding to the music's yearnings, and to the surprise reflections revealed as the movement unfolds. Van Zweden accompanied expertly, which might have been challenging given Trifonov's fiery, brooding interpretation, and the performance almost sizzled. Only the notoriously problematic hall did not fully cooperate -- the dialogue and bandying about of musical lines around the stage in Ravel's featherweight, intricate orchestration were bogged down somewhat by the acoustics.
But, this is a maestro who has ideas, and knows how to achieve them. Van Zweden anchored the evening with one of the repertoire's true tests and showpieces, Igor Stravinsky's 1913 ballet The Rite of Spring. Finally, the relationship between conductor and orchestra were center stage, on display for full examination, and the relationship looks (and sounds) off to a great start. This electric account of Stravinsky's monster of a score had moments of tremendous drive and hypnotic repose, sharp rhythm, and clear textures. It's always impressive when you hear new things in a familiar score, and this exciting reading provided many such revelations. The mysterious opening, with its haunting melange of woodwind solos had particular thrust and focus, and the finale felt well earned.
The evening was capped by an encore of "The Ride of the Valkyries" from Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle. I wondered if this was a gamely challenge to the Met Opera across the plaza, but the audience, which broke into applause upon the arrival of the big tune in the brass, seemed squarely behind the Philharmonic. A gratuitous, but bravely audacious choice. Here's to the beginning of a solid musical future. Nice to meet you, Jaap.