I have attended several New York Philharmonic performances during its peripatetic season (its home base, David Geffen Hall, is getting a drastic makeover). Nevertheless, Saturday night’s was the first of their concerts I’ve listened to in Alice Tully Hall and the sound balance was much better here than in their other venue of choice, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater.

Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

My impression did not change even when confronted with the results produced by the oddly-structured string section (just two cellos and two basses vs six first violins) employed in the chamber orchestra version of Chen Yi’s Duo Ye. Composed in 1985 while Chen was still a student in China, the work was inspired by the short utterances in the dialogue between leader and chorus in a traditional song-and-dance piece from the Guanxi region. As performed by Music Director Jaap van Zweden and the Philharmonic, the brief work, combining European sonorities with Eastern melodies, proved to be a little gem, deserving to be better known. The composition beautifully combines both folk tunes and Beijing opera references with a Western vocabulary, with the excellent percussion section playing multiple roles and mediating transitions.

Juxtaposing Duo Ye with Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, was a brilliant idea. Chen Yi’s modernistic idiom, as expressed in the bookending sections of her work, with their feverish brass episodes, truly invokes Stravinskian reminiscences. Truth be told, the Diaghilev commissioned score, heralding the composer’s neoclassical phase, does not sound too daring. Played more often in recent months, not only because of the Stravinsky anniversary but also due to its suitability for sparsely occupied podiums in the post-pandemic performance resurgence, Pulcinella is a parody anchored in the world of commedia dell’arte. Relatively faithful to the original musical segments, incorrectly attributed to Pergolesi, Stravinsky tried to avoid excessive symmetries, adding rhythmic tensions and ostinatos. The result is another proof of the long-repeated adage that, many a times, the best new works have their genesis in pre-existent forms and patterns. Van Zweden's account was elegant and buoyant, with a few moments (the Toccata) when the orchestral textures were not light enough. The rendition was also an occasion for showcasing individual contributors within the ensemble, such as the members of the featured string quintet, the brass players, flutist Alison Fierst and, especially, oboist Liang Wang who made his mark in Duo Ye as well.

Joshua Bell and Jaap van Zweden
© Chris Lee

Before the interval, Joshua Bell was the much-applauded soloist in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, displaying once again his tremendous romantic sensibility, effortless virtuosity and beauty of tone. His interactions with van Zweden and the musicians of the Philharmonic were beyond reproach. Completely confident in his abilities, the decade-long Music Director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields seemed to occasionally wear his conductor hat, turning to the first violins as he would jokingly ask them to follow his indications. As expected, the interplay between light and shade in the first movement, the intimate character of the Larghetto, or the youthful and fiery declamations in the final Rondo were all there.