On Saturday evening, a collage of sound enveloped Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall as the New York Philharmonic warmed up before swarms of buzzing concert-goers. Cacophony cascaded over the full house until lights were dimmed and the familiar figures of pianist Emanuel Ax and conductor Alan Gilbert strode across the stage to commence a stirring, albeit slightly unorthodox, program of works by Franz Joseph Haydn, Christopher Rouse and Richard Wagner. This was the third performance of three.

Emanuel Ax © Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Emanuel Ax
© Lisa Marie Mazzucco

New York Philharmonic Artist-in-Residence Emanuel Ax opened the evening with a blithe performance of Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D major, Hob. XVIII:11. Ax, who has recently devoted much of his attention to the works of 20th-century composers, rewound to the late 18th century to deliver a clean and animated interpretation of Haydn’s beloved concerto for solo piano, two oboes, two horns and strings.

With ostensible effortlessness, Ax captured the delicate figurations of the concerto’s three movements, as he and his orchestral accompaniment wove in and out of jubilant solo and tutti passages. In the cadenzas of the Vivace and Un poco adagio movements, beautifully executed runs and ornamentations demonstrated the seasoned pianist’s highly lauded dexterity and virtuosity.

It was the final Rondo all’Ungherese that truly stood out with its playful, dissonant grace-note figurations and syncopated rhythms influenced by the music of Croatian folk dance. Ax could not seem to resist dancing along the piano bench as he effectively captured the work’s evocative Gypsy influence, and delivered a performance worthy of the multiple curtain calls that proceeded.

Despite the seeming discord between the program’s opening concerto and the works that followed, it seemed fitting that the Artist-in-Residence’s performance was succeeded by a work of Composer-in-Residence Christopher Rouse. The evening continued with Rouse’s Symphony no. 3, receiving its New York première in this programme, which provided a rich and stimulating sensory experience.

Rouse’s Third is a thoughtful reconsideration of Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 2, and is arranged in two movements for an orchestra of near-Wagnerian proportions. Though Rouse avoids extracting many direct quotations from Prokofiev, he employs stylistic techniques and textures reminiscent of the Russian composer.

The symphony’s first movement opened with a screaming trumpet fanfare, and introduced a fiery and aggressive theme that highlighted Rouse’s interest in toying with percussion arrangements and fast tempi. At times, the sheer volume and force of the percussion seemed to drown out the timbre and textures of the other instrumental sections. However, the general intent of Rouse’s scoring was successful in reflecting the grinding aggression of Prokofiev’s “iron and steel” symphony.

Rouse’s second movement highlights the composer’s stylistic diversity and keen intertwining of tonal and atonal passages. Composed in a set of five variations, the movement is in no way bound to a fixed style. Rather, Rouse’s variations overtly survey a broad range of tempo markings and instrumental textures, and juggle between the presence and absence of a tonal center. The result is a diverse array of sounds, which include fierce, percussive dissonances as well as tender moments of saccharine swells in the strings.

Concluding the program was Music Director Alan Gilbert’s suite from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, which he based on a prior arrangement by conductor Erich Leinsdorf. Condensing the nineteen-hour tetralogy into a 55-minute performance, the arrangement provided just a small taste of Wagner’s infamously immense and virtuosically demanding opera cycle.

Gilbert’s orchestral synthesis of passages from the Ring’s second, third and fourth operas began with “Ride of the Valkyries”, which was followed by selections from “Wotan’s Farewell”, “Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” and “Siegfried’s Funeral Music”. While it is perhaps impossible to convey the incredible depth and complexity of Wagner’s Ring in a single-movement reduction, Gilbert’s selection of passages successfully captured the essence of the cycle, and provided the audience with an effective and stimulating overview that seemed to leave no one dissatisfied.