In their last public appearance of the season (before honouring the well-established tradition of performing free concerts in each of the city’s five boroughs), the musicians of the New York Philharmonic performed a programme at Carnegie Hall paying tribute to another deep-rooted convention: the overture-concerto-symphony pattern.

Sarah Kirkland Snider with Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

Nowadays, the “overture” is many a times a brief contemporary work, enabling various institutions to claim their allegiance to promoting the “new”. The first work on Thursday night was a world première: Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Forward into Light, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic as part of Project 19 (asking 19 women composers to celebrate the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment allowing American women to vote). Despite the piece’s title, derived from a suffrage slogan, and a women’s choir recorded sample from Dame Ethel Smyth's March of the Women, one would not necessarily guess Snider’s programmatic connotations without reading her published notes. She considers Forward Into Light “a meditation on perseverance, bravery and alliance”, a piece “inspired by the idea of a synergistic interpersonal partnership” such as the one between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony, two of the most recognized leaders of the women’s rights movement. At first audition, the score seemed a series of intersections between various sonic waves, several of them harp induced, at times more forcefully coloured, otherwise nuances just gently suggested. The idiom in this piece for a large orchestra was definitely “modern”, but far from being aggressively so, proving the composer’s gift for meaningful orchestration.

Hilary Hahn, Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

Hilary Hahn’s exemplary tone was evident from the first bars of Barber’s Violin Concerto (a work which uncharacteristically lacks an orchestral introduction). Between the difficult to sustain long notes of the first two movements and the mined territory – filled with fast triplets and complex rhythmic patterns – of the third, it was a beautifully balanced performance of a concerto that is not a paradigm of equilibrium. She played the first two movements with understated lyricism, never over-emphasising the music’s Romanticism. The orchestral playing was rather detached, a notable exception being oboist Liang Wang’s warm and gorgeous shaping of the second’s movement main theme. As a contrast to the devilish virtuosity asked for by Barber’s Moto perpetuo finale, Hahn offered as an encore the Sarabande from Bach’s Second Partita, played with great serenity.

Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall
© Chris Lee

Considering the orchestra’s storied history, the quality of its players or the Mahlerian “specialists” that have been at the orchestra’s helm (including the composer himself), any New York Philharmonic performance of a Mahler work should be a distinguished one. However, this rendition of the First Symphony was less so.

There were quite obvious local imperfections, such as the occasional imprecise horn attacks or even coordination mishaps in the first movement. More importantly though, Jaap van Zweden did not succeed well in shaping the symphony’s overall architecture nor in portraying the constant shifts from hope to despair, from light to darkness, naïveté to irony, or from “high” to “low” art references. The required sounds were at times too loud, the rubatos not quite flexible. The Scherzo lacked buoyancy. The parodic strains in the third movement, all those details of immense richness, were insufficiently brought forward. Finishing the performance with a rousing conclusion, culminating in a flourishing and crowd-pleasing gesture, did not make this performance of, arguably, the most wonderfully complex and innovative first symphony ever composed, a truly memorable performance.