Gustavo Dudamel led the New York Philharmonic in a program that featured a mild disappointment, a spectacular success, and an idiosyncratic take on an old favorite. The opener was Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question. The piece got off to a rocky start when the initial gesture, the string choir’s emerging from silence to a quiet, non-vibrato chord, was marred by (apparently) a couple of violinists misjudging the tuning of their notes. This was quickly corrected, and was not a major impediment to enjoyment. However, the woodwind choir, whose increasingly agitated out-of-time gestures constitute the piece’s drama, were placed outside one of the boxes and played through an open door, making them hard to hear and blunting their impact. And the trumpet solo, played from the back of the house, had a warm and elegiac tone that made the repeated, identical interjections sound like expressions of regret rather than “The Perennial Question of Existence”.

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the New York Philharmonic
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

This was followed by the New York premiere of Argentine composer Esteban Benzecry’s 2011 Piano Concerto, “Universos Infinitos”, with Sergio Tiempo as the soloist. (Tiempo and Dudamel brought the piece here after its world premiere just three months ago in Los Angeles.) This is an absolutely outstanding composition, undoubtedly the most engaging and satisfying new piano concerto I have heard from a living composer. Tiempo played it with absolute commitment and an extraordinary range of touch, sometimes creating hallucinatory dreamscapes of notes, sometimes hitting an individual key so hard you could hear the note distorting slightly, and integrating percussive effects like double elbow clusters and slaps on the bass strings without seeming affected. Dudamel likewise made the work’s hugely varied sonic palette seem natural on the Philharmonic. The string glissandos and moaning effects, the brass timbre trills, the rippling textures that moved from one side of the orchestra to another, all felt natural and musical.

Sergio Tiempo and the New York Philharmonic
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

I do not mean to give the impression that this three-movement, 27-minute piece is all about color. There are themes and melodies; there are body-grabbing rhythms; there is satisfying structure. The piece begins with a four-note fanfare, diatonic and hummable, but with a halo of dissonance. This becomes material for the entire first movement (“An Interior World”), which seems to be constructed of juxtaposed gestures, recalling Stravinsky; but the movement ends with a genuine recapitulation of the initial material, an extremely satisfying structural technique all too rarely used in contemporary art music. A different spectrum of influences were evident in the second movement (“Mother Moon”); at one point my notes say “Alan Hovhaness and George Crumb had a baby!”, and later “No, Messiaen and Sibelius!” Some of the harmonies in the solo piano interludes had a distinct jazzy tinge, as well. Again, all of this was amalgamated into a beautifully clear individual voice. The final movement (“Return of the Sun”) began with a clangor of brass and bells, moved through a head-banging call-and-response, full of dance rhythms and the orchestra creating distorted shadows of the piano part, to a return of the piece’s opening fanfare and a rousing, applause-demanding finale.

Dudamel’s take on Dvořák’s New World Symphony was idiosyncratic and engaging, at least at first. He emphasized contrasts – lucid, dreamy pianissimos versus rocky, forbiddingly loud brass. More interestingly, he chose different tempos for different sections, going so far as to provide an Austrian lilt to one of the string themes, turning the continuous flow of the first movement into a population of different ideas, like a Mahler symphony in miniature. The second and third movements apparently were not as conducive to this approach, with their relatively smaller number of themes and sections. They were satisfying, but came across as less quirky, although the returns of the first movement’s materials in both cases were alarmingly brisk outbursts. And then Dudamel took the fourth movement at an astonishingly fast tempo, slowing down a bit only for the initial statement of the second theme, and driving on to the end as though he were being chased. Exciting, yes, but not following through on the iconoclasm promised by the first movement.