Last fall the New York Philharmonic occasionally encountered balance problems adjusting to their temporary home in Alice Tully Hall. A few months later, those issues are gone. Gustavo Dudamel conducted the orchestra in the first of two programs dedicated to Robert Schumann’s symphonies that was as notable for an exquisitely audible separation of instrumental colors, even during tutti passages, as it was for drive and energy.

Gustavo Dudamel, Gabriela Ortiz and the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

The concert opened with Schumann’s Symphony no. 1 in B flat major, “Spring”, and Dudamel, after a deliberate but not ponderous introduction, launched into the Allegro with immensely satisfying momentum. This rendition emphasized syncopations and accents, giving the movement a groove that really did conjure Spring for me. (I wrote down “Romp!” at one point.) The Larghetto, while appropriately relaxed, was still constantly flowing, with barely a lift between phrases. A Scherzo’s role is usually to provide motion after a slow movement. Here this was not needed, and instead the movement came across as a series of sardonic, clownish character pieces, with the main theme conjuring a dancing bear. The slower transition into the fourth movement read as a wry in-joke, whose payoff was a finale every bit as playful and robust as the opening, only the horn and flute cadenza injecting a note of melodrama.

Gabriela Ortiz’ Clara, a Philharmonic commission receiving its premiere at this performance, is a piece of program music about Clara and Robert Schumann’s relationship and personalities, and Ortiz’ response to it and them. It has five short continuous movements, set off by oboe solos representing Clara’s inner world. For me, at least, there was no way in to this; the program note described Clara’s melodies as lyrical and Robert’s as more active and unsettled, but the distinction was not sufficient to allow me to identify them as such on first hearing. Once I gave up on following the program, however, I enjoyed the piece a great deal. It has a cohesive language and structure, smart and exciting pacing, and a vivid mastery of color, especially in the use of percussion. The central section, representing Ortiz’ response, was a high point, with syncopated brass stabs and exuberant timpani. I will also remember clouds of mallet percussion, endlessly descending string glissandi, and a haunting cello solo with a seemingly-random xylophone obbligato.

Dudamel’s approach to Schumann’s Symphony no. 2 in C major was similar to his take on the First, with somewhat more mixed results. Schumann apparently felt that this symphony was colored by what we now recognize as his encroaching mental illness. The first movement’s recurring Mazurka rhythm does have a tic-like quality, and the Scherzo’s manic repetition of a theme based on a diminished chord evokes neurosis at least. The emphasis on momentum, with nearly all the shaping of phrases accomplished with dynamics and articulation rather than give-and-take in the tempo, worked well for these movements. However, I really wanted the Adagio to breathe a little; it’s a long movement that paradoxically seemed longer this way, becoming a grim slog rather than a melancholy bath. The finale was blessed by this treatment, though, simultaneously rhapsodic and triumphant.

I found myself wishing the concert had been performed in reverse order. But perhaps that’s just because we’re all in need of some spring at this point.