Christopher Rouse is nothing if not prolific. He has enjoyed quite a run the past few years here in New York; as composer-in-residence of the New York Philharmonic from 2012-2015, he has written, so far, three symphonies (the most recent of which was premièred this summer during the Biennial), several concertos (with another, for organ, “on the horizon”), a requiem, and a handful of miscellaneous symphonic works. So yes: prolific, as well as, according to the program notes, “perky.” His compositions typically incorporate aspects of pop or rock music, and are usually super tonal, which seems to appeal to crowds both young and old.

Alan Gilbert © Chris Lee
Alan Gilbert
© Chris Lee

His most recent première was a disappointment after the more thoughtful and innovative Symphony no. 4 played in June. The ten-minute Thunderstuck (note: not “thunderstruck”) is bouncy and boring. After a percussion intro, the instrumentalists joined in section by section one over the other, creating a build-up in sound that seemed somehow not to be going anywhere or saying anything (except possibly, “Contemporary classical music can be cool and not at all scary”). Of course, the quality of the playing was very fine and the Philharmonic sounded as enthused and lively as ever.

The second work also began with solo percussion, though Haydn’s Symphony no. 103 in E flat major (“Drumroll”) was composed over 200 years before Mr Rouse’s Thunderstuck, and requires a considerably reduced number of musicians. Music director/conductor Alan Gilbert steered the now-smaller Philharmonic from the opening drumroll through the plodding beginning bass melody (akin to a Dies irae chant), the subsequent contrast of cheerfulness in 6/8 time, all the way to the quick yet delicate tempi of the final movement. Acting concertmaster Sheryl Staples brought a lovely, smooth tone to her second movement solo, and the Philharmonic’s playing was overall as exquisite as we’ve come to expect.

But neither the conducting nor the playing was engaging enough to distract from the piercing feedback of a hearing aid, which continued from the first movement all the way to the end. Mr Gilbert has been known to halt concerts before due to audience disturbance, so I half-expected him to do the same last night. And the disgruntled audience members I overheard at intermission seemed to think he should have.

Luckily, the concert was redeemed almost immediately after the intermission. Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major was off to a brilliant start under the direction of Mr Gilbert, whose interpretations of Brahms are some of his best. After witnessing the composer-in-residence’s latest artistic efforts earlier in the performance, we were treated to artist-in-residence Lisa Batiashvili’s distinct, masterful tone. For the first time all evening, the music had shape and direction. Mr Gilbert consistently pulled warm and intense playing from all sections, and the energy exchanged between him and Ms Batiashvili was palpable.

The concerto was composed about a century after Haydn’s “Drumroll” Symphony and about a century before Christopher Rouse’s tenure at the Philharmonic, and so provided a symmetrical perspective as the centerpiece of the concert. The first movement was nothing short of sublime, especially Ms Batiashvili’s oscillation between sharp, ragged chords and downright luxurious solo work, not to mention her expertly-performed Busoni cadenza. The opening of the second movement, as the oboe was joined by bassoon and then horn and then flute, was heavenly, as was the rest of the movement. And the final movement, taken at a bright, brisk tempo, was pure joy, dispelling any lingering discontent over the lackluster first half of the concert. The central melody swept us along all too quickly to the sonorous close of the piece, ending quite literally on a high note.