The New York Philharmonic is undergoing a serious transition. Jaap van Zweden, the Music Director-Designate, doesn't begin his tenure until next season; Deborah Borda has ascended the Iron Throne; and only last week did we find out the David Geffen Hall renovation project will not displace the orchestra for two seasons as previously anticipated. Consequently, the 2017-18 season calls upon several guest conductors to variegate the Starfleet Command. Maestro Paavo Järvi joined artist-in-residence Leif Ove Andsnes and the musicians of the New York Philharmonic on Thursday night for a seldom-heard Rachmaninov piano concerto, situated between a short jolt by composer-in-residence Esa-Pekka Salonen and Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony.

Leif Ove Andsnes © Özgür Albayrak
Leif Ove Andsnes
© Özgür Albayrak

Gambit (1998) by Esa-Pekka Salonen, who was unable to attend its New York première, is a graceful and light rocket of a piece. Steady, rhythmic cells dance and flitter around chordal blankets that gain momentum as they shimmer like a comet’s tail through the night sky. Unfettered, the frolic hammers and hammers before finally bursting in supreme rapture. Maestro Järvi conducted the piece in a very straightforward manner, gesturing largely the meter changes and beating beats rather than building phrases. Gambit is an honest joy to hear, designed perfectly for opening an orchestral concert, even though the orchestration is a tad extra in terms of discernible tone coloring. 

Leif Ove Andsnes joined the party for Rachmaninov’s not-so-popular Piano Concerto no. 4 in G minor, which went through a series of withdrawals and rewrites during the composer’s lifetime. Despite all its Romantic sentimentality, the concerto resonates fervently with early 20th-century neo-classicism, though never really resulting in anything worth listening to again. Fortunately, Andsnes’ dynamic style and technique conjure an energy that demands attention. Andsnes executed scale after perfectly delineated scale among impassioned songs-without-words, crafting a performance enjoyable for its virtuosity in spite of Rachmaninov’s dog’s breakfast. Järvi kept good balance of the orchestral accompaniment, which is more of an accomplishment than it seems given the robustness of Rachmaninov’s orchestration. Andsnes encored with Sibelius’ Impromptu V from the 6 Impromptus, Op.5, which was devilishly captivating and again showed how Andsnes is pure magic.

Järvi and the Philharmonic concluded the evening with Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, and it's evident that the New York Philharmonic horn section has never sounded better. The opening E flat major triad was especially sterling, both perfectly in-tune and appropriately articulated. The Philharmonic’s strings jolted into overdrive for the final Allegro, and the viola section especially, led by Cynthia Phelps, worked precisely like a team of super-human cyborgs. Järvi led an exceptional performance of the symphony, highlighting the work’s dramatic, film score-like qualities and pacing the final chords with mature restraint. 

The Fifth Symphony was commissioned by the Government of Finland in 1915 for the composer’s 50th birthday. 50 years later, US President Lyndon Johnson joined the Finnish government in decreeing 1965 “Sibelius Year”. Reading about these ceremonious acts today, 50 years after “Sibelius Year”, I am shocked because I have not seen a US Government enthusiastic about any composer in my lifetime. I'm optimistic though that this period of transition for the New York Philharmonic is an opportunity to strategize progressively and reassert the importance of the arts into public life.

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