The program for the New York Philharmonic’s most recent subscription series concerts was not a typical one. First, it was entirely dedicated to the music of Sergei Prokofiev. Secondly, it did include the customary concerto as its middle piece, but none of the composer’s seven symphonies as a pièce de résistance, featuring instead two suites extracted from Prokofiev’s opera and, respectively, ballet music. What could have been a quite uniform output was, in fact, full of charm and fizzle.

Stéphane Denève © Drew Farrell
Stéphane Denève
© Drew Farrell

On a rather balmy Friday afternoon, the New York Phil sounded much more alert and enthusiastic than in recent other performances. The praise should go to the French conductor Stéphane Denève, Music Director Designate of the St Louis Symphony Orchestra, who galvanized the ensemble. Known for actively promoting 20th-century French music, Denève proved to be a worthy ambassador for the music of the Russian composer, who spent the early 1920s in Paris (where the two works in the first half of the program premiered).

Completed right before Prokofiev left revolutionary Russia, the Violin Concerto no. 1 in D major is less astringently chromatic and employs fewer cutting edge rhythmic changes than earlier compositions, such as Sarcasms or the Second Piano Concerto. Starting with a broad, generous melody, the mostly contemplative music looks back to the Romantic era. Prokofiev reversed the typical fast-slow-fast concerto structure, setting the middle Scherzo vivacissimo, built upon a Rondo structure, to be both a showcase for displaying the soloist’s dazzling finger velocity and the locus of all the modernistic, mischievous sound effects.

Canadian violinist James Ehnes made the scary pyrotechnics seem easy even if the caustic character of the Scherzo’s music was not fully brought forward. An artist of remarkable elegance, he was outstanding in the work’s many lyrical moments, infusing richness to the long, introspective melodic lines. As an exquisite chamber musician (Ehnes plays the first violin in a string quartet that bears his name) he collaborated wonderfully with the orchestra in a work where the violin’s virtuosic segments are limited, and the ensemble is rarely relegated to a secondary role. In an afternoon performance full of restless music, Ehnes brought a magnificent moment of calm playing, as an encore, the Andante from Bach’s Sonata no. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003.

Prokofiev’s second opera, The Love for the Three Oranges, is rarely staged, but excerpts from its orchestral score, especially the March, appear relatively regularly in symphonic programs. Under Denève’s baton, the sound, across different instrumental families, was remarkably balanced in the suite that the composer put together. The musical tapestry had all the right colors and the underlying warps and wefts were tense and well-articulated. The overall dynamic range seemed to be though a tad too limited. Principal viola Cynthia Phelps’ plangent and intense solo in The Prince and The Princess Andantino soared effortlessly above the other strings.

The music of Romeo and Juliet is much more well-known. The ballet, initially received with great skepticism, is today a staple of the choreographic repertoire. Denève ignored all three suites assembled by the composer himself, selecting instead ten musical numbers, played in a sequence that respected the narrative yarn. He energetically conducted a score full of extraordinary moments, proving again that he is in full control of the Prokofiev idiom. He manipulated with precision and clarity the music’s ebb and flow, enabling the right contrasts between grotesque and suave, dramatic and tender, the pounding rhythms underlying Tybalt’s death and the sweet harmonies of the balcony scene. The music is a vehicle for instrumentalists to display the quality of their playing and several of them – the cellos as a group, clarinetist Pascual Martínez Forteza, flutist Robert Langevin, oboist Liang Wang, trumpetist Christopher Martin – truly shone.

Different musical tableaux sprung vividly to life bringing to mind choreographic images. One couldn’t ask for much more.

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