Many violin virtuosos have felt, at a certain point in their career, the need to add a conductor’s baton to their bow. Few declared though, as Leonidas Kavakos did during an interview, published a couple of years ago in the Financial Times, that conducting is “their first love”. Even fewer dared to approach with baton in hand a romantic repertoire with all its inherent challenges.

Leonidas Kavakos © Marco Borggreve
Leonidas Kavakos
© Marco Borggreve

The vibrant Greek violinist boldly chose – as the pièce de resistance for his debut as a conductor with the New York Philharmonic – the difficult Schumann's Symphony no. 2 in C major. Composed in 1845-46, it is arguably the orchestral piece that mostly reflects the active versus the passive, "Florestan vs Eusebius" approach to musical development that characterizes so much of Schumann's extraordinary piano output. Leading with no score, precisely signaling every entry, Kavakos obtained from his collaborators – not only the string players but the winds as well – the sweet, penetrating sound of his own Stradivarius. It was a well studied, well crafted performance maintaining, especially in the Scherzo, the proper balance between classical form and romantic élan and between lyricism and weightier moments. The music of the opening chorale flowed without being rushed. The melody, reminiscent of the last song from Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, emerged effortlessly. Even the score’s occasional longueurs were held at bay.

The first part of the evening required only a small orchestra, adapting with difficulty its sound to the cavernous David Geffen Hall. It started with Bach’s Violin Concerto in D minor, a score reconstructed from a later work for keyboard for which it was the presumed source. Kavakos’ playing was as warm as always, but the overall rendition was marred by an occasional lack of synchronization between solo and ensemble.

The other piece, Busoni’s Berceuse elégiaque, was definitely an unusual choice. Seldom performed, undeservedly so, the work is known to be the last score that Gustav Mahler conducted in a public concert, at Carnegie Hall in 1911. Composed two years earlier, in memory of Busoni’s mother, the short work – subtitled Des Mannes Wiegenlied am Sarge seiner Mutter" (The man's cradle song at his mother's coffin)fluidly knits, around a persistent F major, harmonies in E flat, C and D major, thus creating a blurry atonal effect. Despite Busoni’s claims against such an association, the Berceuse, beautifully rendered on this occasion by the instrumentalists of the New York Philharmonic, does bring to mind a Debussian atmosphere. Kavakos, after playing Bach, now without the violin in his hands, displayed an elegant conducting style, a little pedantic, with large gestures involving both elbows and wrists.

Ferruccio Busoni, probably the greatest pianist of his time, wanted very much to be remembered as a composer. Almost a century after his death, his music definitely has a niche of admirers. Kavakos, the New York Philharmonic’s Artist-in-Residence for the 2016-2017 season, has the talent, the tenacity and the personal views that should convince his listeners in the years to come that he is a resourceful conductor and not only an exceptional violinist.