New York Philharmonic’s new music director Jaap van Zweden will not  assume his post till next season, but he gave us a tantalizing taste of what his tenure may bring in a concert that featured Act 1 of Wagner’s Die Walküre. His will be a dynamic, energetic and perhaps at times hard-driven music making. Being a former violinist, van Zweden seems prone to emphasize the strings for volume, tempo and texture. His conducting is precise but unhurried. There is an ample amount of pause that does not stop performance but rather provides a welcome respite that leads to the next phase with seamless transition. If he avoids the tendency towards drama and sentimentality, the reward of his music making is to be swept up in relentless onslaught of heart stopping power and excitement.

Simon O'Neill © Askonas Holt
Simon O'Neill
© Askonas Holt

The concert began with John Luther Adams’ Dark Waves, which combines electronic sounds with the orchestral instruments to create sound echos and amplification. The theme is a vast rolling sea, and the music started in a hush led by lower strings. Lighter strings were gradually added as they continued to create simmering wave melodies; Philip Glass-style repetitions on a large scale. Other instruments joined in, as the sea waves rise and recede, until all sounds disappeared – the last sound to fade was the low strings.

The prominence of low strings, especially cello, in Dark Waves, was a perfect lead-in to the main offering of the evening, the first act of Die Walküre. With no intermission, van Zweden returned to the podium, accompanied by three soloists. The opening moments feature agitated and brusque cellos, this time depicting Siegmund’s flight in the stormy weather.  Brisk tempo and heightened volume drove the sense of urgency of the drama that was about to unfold. An experienced Wagner conductor, van Zweden demanded skill, speed, and nuance from the orchestra. The musicians of the New York Philharmonic rose to the occasion, and they displayed extraordinary technique and artistry. Carter Brey, the principal cellist, was the star of the evening, in both the Dark Waves and Die Walküre. His cello was eloquent in the first meeting of the Walsung twins’ eyes signaling their forgotten connection and budding love. Brey contoured and defined both Sieglinde’s and Siegmund’s melodies of their life story. The brass section was exemplary in their accurate and dignified expressions of critical leitmotifs throughout the act. Anthony McGill’s plaintive clarinet added the sense of impending doom and tragedy as the twins fell in love.

Jaap van Zweden © Chris Lee
Jaap van Zweden
© Chris Lee

The soloists were competent and at times impressive, but they did not quite rise to the level of the orchestra. Soprano Heidi Melton was most impressive as Sieglinde. Her warm and gleaming voice was well suited to the woman who was in an abusive marriage and yet acted with insight and wisdom. Her high notes tended to stop short as they were at times effortful.  But she impressed with good acting with words, hand gestures and body language. Simon O’Neill had plenty of stamina and power as Siegmund, but his tone tended to be strident and blunt. He must be praised for hitting the high notes with ease, and sustaining the famous “Wälse, Wälse” cries with thrilling strength. John Relyea as Hunding boasted a booming and chilling bass, but his diction tended to be wooly and unclear.  

Despite some minor quibbles about the otherwise hardworking soloists, the evening demonstrated van Zweden’s clear vision of the overall arc and complex structure of Wagner’s music, as well as its requirement on the orchestra to bring about a successful performance. It is exciting to welcome a new music director who excels not only in established classical repertoire but also understands the importance of working with musicians and singers to carry out a successful concert performance of an opera. One can perhaps look forward to a diverse and forward-looking leadership from Mr van Zweden if the evening was any guide.