Upon finding out that an indisposed Christoph von Dohnányi would be replaced by Edo de Waart in this week’s Philharmonic subscription concerts, I was expecting one of those solid but not really enthralling versions of the standard repertoire New Yorkers associate with the late Kurt Masur. I was not proven completely wrong.

Edo de Waart © Jesse Willems
Edo de Waart
© Jesse Willems

But, before the standard repertoire works, there was the world première of Evening Land by the Danish composer Bent Sørensen, who, coincidently, was awarded, just a few days before, the very prestigious University of Louisville Gravemeyer Award for Music Composition. Evening Land is juxtaposes, according to Sørensen’s program note, two visions: a childhood memory of an “infinite world”, with “a special evening light over the fields”, seen through the window of his childhood home in Zeeland and the “flashing of light and bustling activity” one can see “looking out over New York from a high balcony”. The music has a very loose A-B-A structure. It begins with a pianissimo solo violin statement played here by the evening’s orchestra leader, Sheryl Staples. The other strings are following suit with the sound fading in and out, like passing clouds in the distance. It’s a slow build up that soon acquires a menacing quality. The clouds are not innocent any more. The music might as well evoke a devilish dance not just the noises of a busy city setting seen from afar. Towards the end, following a dialogue between the violin and Liang Wang’s oboe, the turbulence recedes and calm is prevalent again. De Waart, a constant supporter of new music throughout his career, led the orchestra expertly and assuredly, shaping a rich but not overpowering, orchestral texture where mood and color changes were the result of unconventional glissandi, typical for Sørensen’s style.

There are few pianists active today that are more qualified than Emanuel Ax to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor. A musician who has mined the Romantic repertoire for decades, Ax has an innate elegance of tone and gesture that make him an ideal interpreter of this music, bridging like no other the worlds of the 18th and 19th centuries. One of only two minor key piano concertos Mozart composed, K.466 is explicitly dramatic and full of passion, totally different in character from other works written during the same period. Ax’s approach was understated, without grand gestures, but firm. He cared less about a certain urgency that could characterize this music but more about the melancholy that permeates it. He exquisitely played Beethoven's cadenza in the Allegro, making sure to underline the elements of continuity between two different styles. In the Romanze, the agitated middle section was wonderfully integrated in its serene and lyrical surroundings. De Waart treated the deceptive simplicity of certain orchestral passages with all seriousness, having the reduced orchestral apparatus respond with the same combination of modesty and assertiveness that the pianist displayed. He made sure that the orchestral sound was not monolithic, that individual instrumental voices were clearly heard. At points, it seemed that he brought forward reminiscences of Don Giovanni, parts of which were written in the same D minor key.

After intermission, the rendition of Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 in D major adhered quite strictly to the letter of the score without the conductor trying to bring new ideas to this oft-played work. The orchestra responded correctly – minus some slight disagreements in the brass section – but without too much enthusiasm. There was beautiful playing from the centrally placed cellos at the beginning of the Adagio, and the dialogue between Richard Deane’s horn and the woodwinds (Liang Wang – oboe, Robert Langevin – flute and Anthony McGill – clarinet) brought some life to a rather prosaic performance. Overall, a solid, decorous, non-schmaltzy performance.