A colourful programme of dance, myth, fantasy and nostalgia marked the end of Joyce DiDonato's Barbican artist spotlight, and the start of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra's residency. The foyer was buzzing and the anticipation within the hall palphable, but the playing, although big and bold, was oddly lacking in character.

Alan Gilbert © Chris Lee
Alan Gilbert
© Chris Lee

Esa-Pekka Salonen's Nyx, receiving its UK première, certainly tested the mettle of the NY Phil. Depicting the elusive mythical figure, the work presents material in ever-changing contexts. With the ideas retaining their defining features, there is a risk that the work will lack direction. However, the cinematic quality of Salonen's score means that interest tends to lie on the surface, and there is an underlying sense of stasis.

Salonen's understanding of the orchestra is impressive, with testing parts for horn and a mellifluous clarinet solo. Indeed, his instinctive understanding of sonority is its principal strength. Hints of Lindberg and Sibelius are evident in the spacing of Salonen's textures, and there are more than a few hints of Stravinsky's Rite. The work is a gift for any orchestra, with cataclysmic outbursts and constantly shifting textures. However, I couldn't help thinking that the main value of the piece lay in its performance, rather than in the score itself.

Joyce DiDonato joined the orchestra on stage for Ravel's Shéhérazade, an evocative and subtle work. Her fruity, voluptuous voice often overpowered the work, painting the Orient in bright rather than shimmering pastel colours. Although it demands an impressive vocal control, Shéhérazade is not a virtuoso piece. After the first movement, DiDonato embraced the shadowy, veiled images painted by Klingsor's text. Her dialogue with the flute (the  in the second movement was enchanting, while her barely audible glide on “Entre!” in the third movement sent shivers down the spine. The NY Phil captured the perfumed languor of the piece with sensuous swells and characterful woodwind solos. DiDonato offered Strauss' Morgen as an encore, providing a taste of the Viennese string sound which the orchestra would bring out in the second half.

The orchestra's account of Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales may have been slick, but felt oddly clinical. Despite Alan Gilbert's flamboyant podium moves, it was only in the Vif movement that the work came to life. Aside from some issues with balance, there were few flaws in the performance – indeed, flute and cor anglais sounded gorgeous in the second movement, while the third glittered – but it failed to capture the joie de vivre of the waltzes.

The orchestra's sound was best suited to Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier Suite, and they attacked it with swagger (even if accuracy sometimes suffered). However, after the rumbustious opening section, the character of the performance drained away. Fussy phrasing and stilted transitions lessened the enchanting effect of the work, with the result that the bolder moments appeared hollow. While the strings, silky but direct, and woodwind impressed, the brass were evidently tired by the end.

Given the extravagance of Gilbert's gestures, I expected something more from the ensemble. Adjusting to a hall with which they were unaccustomed clearly didn't help, but (except for the Salonen) this repertoire is by no means unfamiliar. The performance was solid, but lacked the 'wow' factor. As the orchestra gave their encores, beginning with the waltz from Act I of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, they danced on into the night. I left the Barbican feeling that I had only gained glimpses of the orchestra's true capabilities, and that they had much more to say.