The New York Philharmonic opened its season last night with a concert that concluded with a splendidly conceived and realized mash-up of selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Unfortunately, the first half of the concert was less compelling.

Jaap van Zweden
© Roger Neve

The choice to premiere a new piece by Philip Glass must have seemed like a no-brainer from both an artistic and a marketing point of view. Glass is still one of the most recognizable names in classical music composition, and his music is reliably accessible and crowd-pleasing. However, despite the presence of Glass’ trademark steady pulse, swirling arpeggios and shifting triads, the King Lear Overture was simply not well written for orchestra. Textures were almost uniformly thick and seemed muddy. Rhythmic ensemble was only sporadic; it seemed at times as though members of the orchestra were having trouble hearing each other. While there were some exciting moments – Stravinskian juxtapositions of orchestration, repetitive figures that somehow accumulated dissonance along the way – this does not count among the Philharmonic’s most successful commissions.

The choice of noted musical theatre actress and crossover star Kelli O’Hara to sing the soprano part in Samuel Barber’s elegiac Knoxville: Summer of 1915 must likewise have seemed inspired. James Agee’s rambling recollection of and musing about a childhood evening is difficult to put across; the text includes words like “sterterous,” and Barber’s setting, while gorgeous, does not always place a premium on intelligibility. (The orchestra provided supertitles.) Who better than O’Hara to evoke the drama and contradictions inherent in this lovely piece? In the event, though, her rendition, while perfectly competent musically, was less communicative than others I have heard. Moreover, the silvery, coreless sheen of O’Hara’s voice, more flute than violin, seemed ill-wedded to the orchestra’s luminous sound, posing flatly in front of it rather than soaring above it or mingling felicitously. The result was that I found myself looking forward to the orchestral interludes.

From the first brutal notes of the fanfares that begin “The Montagues and Capulets,” however, Jaap van Zweden’s selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet were the kind of music-making one always hopes for from an orchestral concert. Colors were perfectly balanced, tempos were perfectly chosen. The NY Phil played with precision but not stiffness, power but not arrogance and, where needed, with delicacy, enthusiasm and grace. Despite having as large an orchestra as the Glass overture, the group seemed nimble. The stilted dotted rhythms in the main theme of “The Montagues and Capulets” were vigorous and faintly threatening, like intimidating parental figures; the rapid scale figures in “Juliet as a Young Girl” were quicksilver darts of motion. One could practically see a ballerina scurrying at those moments. The passionate melodic outcries in “Romeo at the Tomb of Juliet,” the best-known theme from the ballet, had an immediacy that belied their familiarity.

The combination of selections worked surprisingly well, although engendering confusion among some of the audience as to which movement was the finale. The musical logic and pacing of the sequence was impeccable, although not tracking the action of the ballet at all.

Van Zweden has the New York Philharmonic playing at its peak. Had the entire concert been of this quality, this would have been a five-star review.