Music Director of Toulouse’s Orchestre National du Capitole for more than a decade, and of Moscow’s Bolshoi since 2014, Tugan Sokhiev has repeatedly conducted major European orchestras, but is very little known on this side of the Atlantic. Being invited to lead a subscription series with the New York Philharmonic might bring a long-expected change. The scheduled program – a typical overture, concerto, symphony triad – was not very imaginative neither in terms of structure nor in terms of content. But then, pairing a conductor making his debut with a “difficult” program may have been difficult to sell to subscribers. 

Gil Shaham © Luke Ratray
Gil Shaham
© Luke Ratray

The public showered with love, though, the evening’s soloist, the marvelous Gil Shaham. With his constant smile, combining transparent virtuosity with a phenomenally sweet tone on his Stradivarius, Shaham gives listeners the impression that everything is easy. His restlessness was well-suited to Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in D major, a composition turning upside down the fast-slow-fast convention but otherwise less radical – rhythmically and chromatically – than its predecessors in the Russian composer’s oeuvre. From the very beginning, Shaham confirmed, in dialogues with the woodwinds and the violas, his ability to listen to what different members of the orchestra have to say. The sound balance between soloist and ensemble was very much in check during the entire performance… even when his fingers moved with a speed that made them visually indistinguishable, Shaham didn’t allow any hesitation to creep into his playing. Clarity was paramount. One wished that both violinist and orchestra would have underlined more the corrosiveness and sarcasm always present – obviously or just as a whiff – in most of Prokofiev’s scores and certainly in this one.

The first work on the program, an eight-minute pièce d’occasion – composed by Borodin as a celebration of the silver anniversary of the reign of Tsar Alexander II – should have been a showcase contrasting European and Oriental colors. Taken at a somehow slow pace, the rendition of In the Steppes of Central Asia was rather soporific, if one forgets the marred initial intervention of the horn, restating the main theme (unfortunately, a foreboding of additional problems with the brass later during the evening).

In a letter to Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky explained the massive first movement of his Fourth Symphony, writing that “Life is an unbroken alternation of hard reality with swiftly passing dramas and visions of happiness”. Sokhiev played down the introverted character of the music. For him, the Andante sostenuto is a tragic statement about humanity rather than an individual. The famous “fate” theme sounded terrifying with almost every repetition, leaving little hope for escape. Frequent changes of pace didn’t signal doubt, self-pity or indecision, but seemed to be part of a grander scheme meant to bring the “hero” closer to total submission. At the same time, the conductor carefully nurtured the conflict between rhythmic and harmonic development in a sonata form vs melodic repetitions in the form of variations, a conflict essential to Tchaikovsky’s music.

The second part, Andantino in modo di canzona, featured the oboist Sherry Sylar’s sensitive playing and the Finale was both festive and nostalgic even if lacked a certain degree of litheness. The truly outstanding component of this interpretation was the Scherzo. Sokhiev contoured with great care and precision the sinuous twists and turns of the strings’ pizzicato. The dynamic range was wider than expected, bringing new life to an overplayed score, even if it would be difficult to consider Sokhiev’s debut here as an unqualified success. Hopefully, there will be other occasions for collaboration.