It's been a month of firsts for the New York Philharmonic: along with the start of its inaugural season with music director Jaap van Zweden, each programme since the opening gala has included a world première. In addition, following Friday's concert, the orchestra launched "Nightcap," a late-night, new-music series meant to encourage more-relaxed encounters, in a cabaret-style atmosphere, among audiences, performers, and living composers.

Jaap van Zweden © Hans van der Woerd
Jaap van Zweden
© Hans van der Woerd

The intriguing premise behind this programme was to pair a formidable symphony with a brand-new commission imagined not as a mere "appetizer" but as a kind of introductory commentary on the main event. Van Zweden turned to Conrad Tao, the young American pianist and composer hose work the conductor has championed in earlier commissions for his other orchestras (the Hong Kong Philharmonic and Dallas Symphony), requesting a piece that would lead attacca, without pause, into Anton Bruckner's Eighth Symphony. As a consequence, Tao also had at his disposal the enlarged orchestra for which the latter score calls (including no fewer than three harps).

Lasting about 11 minutes, Everything Must Go presents a compact apocalyptic soundscape scarred by violent percussive attacks and destabilizing flux: images of early-21st-century anxiety. This fearsome vision might seem to belie the youthfulness of a composer who is only 24. Yet the former child prodigy has already been before the public for more than half his life.

Tao immersed himself in Bruckner essentially as a new discovery. The Austrian's musical world had been largely unknown to him before he undertook the commission. Tao seems to have latched onto the more mysterious and unsettling aspects of the Eighth, which contains some of Bruckner's most terrifying music. The persistent cliché of Brucknerian "cathedrals of sound" becomes transformed here into a fascinatingly original concept, described by Tao as "the image of a cathedral gaining sentience as it melts, coming to life via its ostensible 'decay.'" 

Van Zweden approached the new score as a surreally vivid drama that unfolded on competing planes, each struggling to claim its right as the "center." The vital moment of transition into the Bruckner conveyed considerable suspense, as Tao, without obvious quotation – this was no postmodern pastiche – elicited sonic images that also define the Eighth. A lone flute playing against the abyss, strings rasping desperately sul ponticello, as if to signal imminent catastrophe: and then, suddenly, we were enveloped in Bruckner's own cosmos, itself a remarkable reimagining of that already so-often-rewritten primordial scenario: the opening of Beethoven's Ninth. 

Bruckner has been a preoccupation for van Zweden in recent years. In 2016 he released the last installment in his recorded cycle with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. The conductor has shared his understanding of the composer with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, and last season he made room for the Eighth during his final season helming the Dallas Symphony.

Yet for all that, Friday's account never rose above a collection of isolated powerful moments throughout its 80-plus-minute span. Under the right conditions, Bruckner's Eighth can be among the most overwhelming experiences in the symphonic repertoire. This is music capable of transporting us, to bend Goethe's famous phrase, "from hell through the world to heaven." Yet after this unusual preludial setup, van Zweden, performing the familiar 1890 Nowak edition, sailed through the mammoth first movement without digging into its devastating emotional implications. Bruckner's yawning abysses lacked profile, while the composer's most frightening dissonances merely seemed loud, the death-rattle ending a lowering of the thermostat.

The Scherzo, not unexpectedly, shivered with a Wagnerian frisson – though the woodwinds disappointed with pedestrian phrasing – and van Zweden was attuned to the Tristan-ish undercurrents in the Adagio. What was missing was an indispensable patience: van Zweden seemed afraid to let this music properly breathe and bloom, its transcendent ecstasy just beyond reach.

Starting the finale at a fierce pitch, van Zweden delivered several such moments that were powerful in short-term impact, coaxing a wonderful variety of blends from brass and horns. But a sustained and coherent vision is most needed in the far-ranging finale. The result here was more like gears shifting to readjust to the changing sonic topography, with full-throttle already well in place for the shattering final measures.

But more Bruckner thoughts were to come in the ensuing Nightcap, hosted at the Stanley Kaplan Playhouse next to Juilliard and curated by Conrad Tao. Reflecting on "what ritual sounds like in 2018," Tao invited collaborations with vocalist Charmaine Lee and choreographer Caleb Teicher. One of these was an interpretation of a Bruckner motet, with Tao at the keyboard and Teicher providing tap dance accompaniment. In the wake of the Eighth's monumentality, this miniature distilled was no parody, but a creative affirmation -- and an enticing taste of new partnerships to come. 

***11