REVIEW: New York Philharmonic Goes to the Theatre on Opening Night
Above: Soprano Kelli O’Hara and the New York Philharmonic. Photo by Chris Lee.
September 19, 2019
By Brian Taylor
The New York Philharmonic opens its 2019-2020 season with a program of music that brings the theatre — drama and dance — to the concert hall. Shakespeare, whose works for the stage have nourished the arts for centuries, anchored the evening. Jaap van Zweden, in his second season as the Philharmonic’s Music Director, exuded energetic zeal and guest star Kelli O’Hara impressed in this thrilling concert.
Philip Glass, one of America’s most famous living composers, was in the room to hear the World Premiere of a Philharmonic commission, his King Lear Overture. Glass, known as a prolific and definitive practitioner of minimalism, penned the score for the recent Broadway revival of Shakespeare’s King Lear starring Glenda Jackson. This overture is described as being “born of a parallel conception.” In other words, this is apparently not a hodgepodge of themes from that material for string quartet. Rather, this is the award-winning composer’s purely musical response to being immersed in Lear.
Glass applies minimalist techniques in sparing strokes to a dynamic tapestry exploding with color and vacillating focal points. It’s a whirlwind ten minutes of athletic playing from all sections of the orchestra. It sets a grandiose tone, perhaps for an imagined performance of Lear, and certainly for what promises to be an epic season at David Geffen Hall.
Americana is another of the concert’s themes, the evening kicking off with a rousing Star Spangled Banner and Samuel Barber’s exquisite orchestral song Knoxville: Summer of 1915 rounding out the first half. Tony-winner O’Hara has a luscious voice of gold and cream, and her instrument is in impeccable shape. But it is her generous warmth, and skill as an actress, that makes Barber’s nostalgic paean to pre-WWI country life, set to evocative text by James Agee, vivid and emotionally resonant. Her diction is precise, her intonation impeccable, her phrasing tasteful, but all of it seems effortless and natural. Van Zweden, who generates jet-engine bombast in the King Lear Overture, here extracts gentle flower-scented breezes and sultry sunset hues from his ensemble.
Sergei Prokofiev’s indelible ballet music for Romeo and Juliet (selections from the composer’s two suites culled by van Zweden for a 40-minute sojourn through the score) followed intermission. Satisfying as a concert piece, this should become the new standard. Occupying a sweet spot between Prokofiev the nose-thumbing iconoclast and the sarcastic Neo-Classicist, this is Prokofiev at his best, and the Philharmonic’s performance is riveting. A powerhouse ensemble in top form: violent bursts and haunting apparitions, shocking dynamic contrasts, appear and evaporate with cinematic drama in “The Montagues and the Capulets.”
“Romeo and Juliet Before Parting,” one of Prokofiev’s most beguiling, bittersweet creations, was spellbinding poetry in van Zweden’s hands. Dances like the “Minuet” and “Dance of the Five Couples” lilting and effervescently light, while the Maestro drew crescendos of pathos in the anguished “Romeo at the Tomb of Juliet.” Van Zweden’s take on Romeo sculpts a drama that encapsulates both the tender ardor between doomed lovers and the inexorable weight of fate.
With a fearless brass section that pushes the limits, yet maintains structural integrity; woodwind playing both jocular and delicate; and a limitless tonal palette from both strings and percussion, I would wager that the Philharmonic has scarcely sounded better.