Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu chose works by two compatriots, Jean Sibelius and Kaija Saariaho, for his debut with the New York Philharmonic. He programmed them alongside interesting, off-the-beaten-path selections from Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók, creating a concert that showcased classical music of the past hundred years at its most intimate and most animated. The result not only introduced the New York audience to a worthwhile orchestral partner – it showed off the various dimensions of the recent revisions at David Geffen Hall, the Philharmonic’s home theater at Lincoln Center.

Hannu Lintu conducts the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

As someone who spent many evenings inside this acoustically unfriendly space in my high-school and college years – often confounded by the muddiness of the sound, despite excellent playing from the orchestra – I never imagined I’d hear such crisp, individuated detail in Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments. The well-executed new balances allowed the groupings to harmonize together without any one section overpowering another. Under Lintu’s baton, you appreciated the silvery sheen of the flutes, the amber-hued richness of the bassoons and the heft of the brass, which anchored the composition with a surprising mellowness. The influence of Debussy, to whom the piece is dedicated, was evident in the hazy quality Stravinsky uses to stretch motifs.

This composition had a thematic partner in Saariaho’s Ciel d’hiver (Winter Sky), an outgrowth of her longer orchestral work, Orion. The composer introduces a three-note motivic structure that anchors the various solos throughout the ten-minute work, showing how the same idea can take on a different voice when heard from violin, trumpet or piano. The result sounded playful without turning repetitious. Lintu opted for a lean, ringing tone in the strings that contrasted with the warmth of the woodwinds, which seemed to signal the unpredictable shifts of winter weather to which the title alludes.

Daniil Trifonov, Sergei Babayan, Hannu Lintu and the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

The Philharmonic’s first traversal of Bartók’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra since 1966 anchored the concert. Daniil Trifonov and Sergei Babayan traded the whiplash-inducing solo lines of the extended first movement with notable precision. The performance highlighted their distinctive strengths as artists: Trifonov brought sharp edges to complement Babayan’s pliant lyricism. Christopher S Lamb, Daniel Druckman and Markus Rhoten – all culled from the corps of the percussion section – were equal partners to the pianists, sometimes contrasting their sound and sometimes mirroring it. Lintu highlighted the uncharacteristic wit of the composition: in the third movement, I heard Gershwinesque jazz influences for the first time, perhaps a byproduct of the composer's later years in New York.

The program closed with Sibelius’ Symphony no. 7 in C major. Lintu treated the piece like a tone poem, privileging color over narrative progression. Throughout the concert, the 55-year-old maestro seemed to get every stylistic effect he wanted from the Philharmonic’s players, a rare feat for a first outing. This orchestra is currently searching for its next Music Director, as Jaap van Zweden prepares to leave in 2024. Lintu’s name has not been mentioned as frequently as his countrymen Santtu-Matias Rouvali or Klaus Mäkelä, but this stunning debut suggested that he could be a dark-horse candidate for the post.