On Friday morning here in the United States, 27 individuals lost their lives in a tragic mass shooting. I would like to preface this review by expressing my sincere condolences for all affected by the tragedy.

Jan Lisiecki © Mathias Bothor/DG
Jan Lisiecki
© Mathias Bothor/DG

At the same time on Friday morning, the New York Philharmonic performed a lovely if conventional concert under the baton of David Zinman (replacing Daniel Harding, who was ill). First on the program was Jean Sibelius’ Symphony no. 3, which the orchestra delivered with measured momentum. Mr Zinman was patient and poised as he guided the musicians through the early 20th-century Finnish composer’s lush array of sounds. Mr Zinman and the Philharmonic were in no hurry, opting for subtle and precise phrasing over frenzy and fanfare. The second movement’s flute solo was as delicate as dewdrops decorating the pine tree branches of the Finnish landscape, as were the pizzicato sections, during which it was necessary to hold one’s breath so as not to miss anything. The placid tempo of the third movement felt almost stodgy at times, but luckily Mr Zinman picked up the pacing a bit for the final bars.

After intermission, the pared-down orchestra was joined by Jan Lisiecki, who at the tender age of 17 has become the Justin Bieber of the classical music world. Mr Lisiecki has made some delightful recordings of Mozart piano concertos and, after graduating high school in 2011, has been performing all over the world as well as working on his bachelor’s degree at the Glenn Gould School of Music in Toronto. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see him live, but from Mr Lisiecki’s brash opening chords, it was clear that flawless technique was not going to be enough. Mr Lisiecki effortlessly navigated the extremely challenging and virtuosic score, and perhaps if his fleet fingers had been facilitating the music of Mozart or of a Baroque composer, his performance would have been more than mediocre. But on Friday he was interpreting Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, an incredible work swirling with a range of emotion that Mr Lisiecki, regrettably, does not yet possess.

Throughout the first movement I watched in disappointment as Mr Lisiecki delivered an interpretation lacking a certain gravity and the elemental human quality that should be mandatory when performing Romantic-era compositions. Mr. Lisiecki blended his phrases immaculately with those of the orchestra, which gave him the impression of being unanimated and polite during a concerto that calls for passion and sensitivity. This aversion to unnecessary displays of showiness was actually a wise choice, as over-emphasizing his single-hued tone would have clashed irritatingly with the impeccable music of the orchestra. The cadenza at the end of the first movement comprises such a wide spectrum of musical and emotional colors, but as the orchestra fell silent, Mr. Lisiecki offered none of them. These were just notes to him, notes he had practiced a lot, probably much more than the average 17-year-old piano student; but Schumann’s cadenza requires more than well-rehearsed dexterity. Luckily, he still has many years ahead of him to flesh out his promising skill set with a sense of color and soul.

From the opening timpani roll of Sibelius’ Symphony no. 7, I knew I was back in the hands of musicians capable of delivering more than just notes. After the piano concerto, the musicians of the Philharmonic glided through another Sibelius symphony with a calm, glowing astuteness. Mr Zinman was once again patient, never rushing through Sibelius’ final surviving symphony. The work meanders through shifting key signatures and time signatures in a continuous coalescence of timbres and tempi that consists of either one, four, or eleven movements, depending on which scholar you ask. No matter the baffling structure, the symphony is undeniably beautiful, and the Philharmonic bestowed a breathtaking interpretation. Mr Zinman actuated a smooth and leisurely build-up of sounds, right up until the brilliant final chord. The suspended harmonic resolution rounded out a concert that, despite its unadventurous program, was moving and sincere. Mr Zinman in particular deserves praise for his sagacious substitution.