Considered a candidate to replace Jaap van Zweden as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali returned to David Geffen Hall to helm the orchestra’s first subscription week of 2023. A programme bracketing a widely anticipated New York premiere with a pair of well-known but not very often played, classics was an occasion for the conductor to highlight his versatility.

Yuja Wang and the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

It is not often that the main attraction of a concert is a 30-minute new work, but such is the star power of its dedicatee, the phenomenally gifted Yuja Wang, that everyone was eager to listen with all due attention to Magnus Lindberg’s Piano Concerto no. 3. First performed in San Francisco last October, with Wang under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the concerto has a traditional three movement structure with a more contemplative central part. In his notes, Lindberg mentioned “three concertos in one piece” but also “a chart of eight different characters” and “many stories going on at the same time”, repeatedly returning with “something new to say”. 

On a first encounter, persistent individual voices and patterns were difficult to discern, given the very dense orchestral textures. Easier to notice were several fleeting references to the B-A-C-H motif and brief sequences reminiscent of Ravel, Stravinsky, Debussy or Gershwin thematic material. Overall, despite the fragmented melodic elements and the lack of a Romantic ethos, the work evokes Rachmaninov’s concertos. 

Santtu-Matias Rouvali, Magnus Lindberg and Yuja Wang
© Chris Lee

Rouvali wove with calm and poise the many threads that Lindberg offers in order to build a comprehensive soundscape. He did his best to underline the imaginative vigour of the score, while minimising a certain sensation of repetition that nevertheless still felt palpable. The composer does not give the soloist too many moments of respite; on the contrary, he seems to just pile up daunting technical challenges for the pianist, which were obviously no match for Wang’s prowess. Two separate cadenzas – part of the few segments of the concerto where the piano is not forced to compete with a noisy orchestra – made clearer the composer’s ease in juggling with different rhythmic and harmonic combinations. They also allowed listeners to marvel once again at Wang’s ability to convey a poetic quality to passages that many pianists might just find too difficult to play.

A public that seemed slightly confused on how enthusiastically to respond to Lindberg’s new work was quickly charmed by Wang’s decision to play Sibelius’ Etude Op.76 no.2, an homage to the Finnish origins of both composer and conductor. Interpreted with her trademark acumen, this little gem should be a fine addition to Wang’s panoply of encores.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducts the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

The rendition of the evening’s introductory work, Rossini’s overture to Semiramide, was only partially successful. Instead of letting a typical “Rossini crescendo” take its natural course, Rouvali tried to impose his own dynamic and rhythmic options. There was little sense of the carefully calibrated but relentless propulsion that Rossini intended, and the orchestra sounded too loud before time (not to mention the lack of coordination in the horns’ playing).

Beethoven’s Symphony no. 2 in D major fared much better. With precise and elegant gestures, switching the position of cellos and violas, Rouvali elicited a performance of great transparency despite using an orchestral apparatus – eight double basses – bigger than strictly necessary. He approached the score as a moment of equilibrium in musical history, neither overemphasising the use of Haydnesque devices nor the premonitory elements such as the harmonic surprises in the contemplative Larghetto or the witty Finale.