I have rarely heard as thoughtfully designed and coherent a program from the New York Philharmonic as Stéphane Denève's on Wednesday night. All the composers were French, which is often as far as such efforts go. Noticeable similarities of materials, such as the use of the whip in the opening gestures of the first two works and the 5/4 meters of the final sections of the two ballet suites, invited connections between pieces. And a thematic and musical link to dreams in the first three works culminated in Ravel’s famous evocation of sunrise from Daphnis et Chloé.

Stéphane Denève conducts the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

This was my first time in the Wu Tsai Theater in the new David Geffen Hall, so I can’t adequately separate Denève’s contribution to the orchestra’s exquisite clarity here from the sound of the hall itself. But they sounded damn good. Brass climaxes seemed to organically well up from within the music, rather than being layered on top. Strings and woodwinds were incisive and elegant. The percussion was flawlessly placed sonically to support and particularize the rest of the orchestra. It’s not perfect – four horns and a suspended cymbal can still make several dozen string players seem to be pantomiming playing their instruments – but I suppose that’s the nature of the beast.

The program opened with Céléphaïs, a movement from Guillame Connesson’s Les Cités de Lovecraft, an homage to the celebrated horror writer. It’s an appealing piece; invoking Lovecraft allows for both Neo-romantic sweep and modernist ferocity, and the orchestra committed equally to both. Many of Lovecraft’s stories are based on dreams, and the movement displayed both a dream logic and an exoticism of the imaginary (a welcome updating of 19th-century Orientalist tropes).

Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major does not have a program. But pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, in his Philharmonic debut, gave the extended piano solo that begins the second movement and forms the heart of the concerto a gorgeous, hypnotically dreamlike feel. The meandering pianissimo melody somehow had directionality and even urgency, and by the time the melody overflowed the bounds of the piano and was taken up by the woodwinds, a sense of lingering sorrow had emerged to color the rest of the piece. Even the Presto third movement seemed quirky rather than frantic or raucous. Ólafsson’s encore, the Gavotte of the Hours from Rameau’s final opera Les Boréades, reprised the otherworldly feel of the concerto’s second movement.

Stéphane Denève, Víkingur Ólafsson and the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

The Second Suite from Albert Roussel’s ballet Bacchus et Ariane begins with music from a scene in which Ariane is dreaming. Roussel was a contemporary of Ravel, in my opinion undeservedly lesser-known today. While not as sensual as Debussy’s or as charming as Ravel’s, his music is imaginative, witty and uproariously kinetic where it needs to be. Denève and the orchestra had a great deal of fun with this suite, evoking everything from profound seascapes to a boisterous party.

Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, Orchestral Suite no. 2 is likewise derived from a ballet score. The first passage contained the concert’s only not-entirely-successful moment; the opening alternation between the highly exposed flute and clarinet arpeggios was not balanced well and called attention to itself. But the rest of the suite was full of wonders; Robert Langevin’s extended flute solo was impeccable, and some of the high violin lines brought to mind streaks of fire across a velvet sky.