For one of the most iconic works in the art music repertoire, The Rite of Spring actually isn’t performed very often. This week it made a welcome appearance on a New York Philharmonic program under the baton of British conductor Daniel Harding. It turned out to be the main event of an otherwise routine evening.

Daniel Harding, © Deutsche Grammophon / Harald Hoffmann
Daniel Harding,
© Deutsche Grammophon / Harald Hoffmann

The concert opened with a short work by Oliver Knussen, Flourish with Fireworks. The Philharmonic has recently been criticized for a lack of new music in its programming under guest conductors. This performance would belie that, were Knussen’s work not merely four minutes long. It does, however, make one want to hear more. Knussen’s bright orchestral palette of brass, pizzicato strings, and percussion aptly evoke bursts of sparkling light. Knussen’s musical cipher of LSO and MTT for original dedicatees the London Symphony Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas are best forgotten, but the references to Stravinsky’s early orchestral piece Fireworks was appropriate to the rest of this program.

Next, Joshua Bell joined the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s evergreen Violin Concerto in D major. The concerto is a finger-buster but also contains moments of lyricism. Bell has beautiful, honey-like tone and plays with generous amounts of portamento and rubato in the style of an old-fashioned violinist. He was at his best when teasing out a lyrical phrase, such as in the very beginning of the first movement or much of the second. Throughout the piece he skated over the surface of the music, paying little mind to harmonic structure or interaction with the orchestra. Fast passages were dispatched with virtuosity, but the notes did not always project with clarity of purpose, particularly in the first movement. While smooth, one wished Bell would delve more deeply into the piece and find more expressive resonance. Harding’s passive conducting didn’t help give the performance much shape.

The concert’s centerpiece was Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, in the second half. Its première touched off music history’s most famous riot, supposedly provoked by the harsh anti-balletic postures of Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography and the rhythmic violence of Stravinsky’s score. Without its choreography, the music can take many forms. Under the baton of Pierre Boulez or the composer himself it is a tight modernist machine; as directed by Valery Gergiev it can be a craggy monument to Russian folklore (indeed, Stravinsky covertly quoted many Russian folk songs in his score).

Harding’s interpretation recalled the conductor’s affinity for Mahler. He summoned an unusually warm and enveloping sound from the orchestra, with a control that kept textures precisely delineated. The opening bassoon solo registered as pure lush beauty. While sometimes one wished for more violence and strangeness, the sheer precision and polish of the performance was often thrilling, particularly in the balance Harding achieved in the score’s loudest and fastest moments. The Philharmonic brass was having a good night, playing with a wide range of color and blazing power when required, but rarely completely overpowering the other sections. Softer moments, such as that opening and the beginning of the second part, sounded almost slick. It was when Harding let the orchestra unleash itself, such as in the final Sacrificial Dance, that things became exciting. While not an interpretation that reminded us of Stravinsky’s strangeness, it showed that the Rite still has the power to astonish.