There was a special glow about David Geffen Hall tonight. Beams of amber light accented the grand promenade. Warm shades of gold illuminated the stage. Even the orchestra had a certain glimmer, leading me to ask, “Why isn’t it always this way?” Not only did the cavernous hall seem more welcoming, but also the concert experience was more approachable and inclusive. In an introduction to the program, Leelanee Sterrett (horn) shared her excitement for this special “Roman” program, explaining that the new lighting was designed to emulate the afternoon sunlight in a Roman square.

Charles Dutoit © Chris Lee
Charles Dutoit
© Chris Lee
Then, the New York Philharmonic, conducted with aplomb by Charles Dutoit, commenced its program of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 9 in E flat major and Ottorino Respighi’s trilogy inspired by Rome. The concert opened with a disposable rendition of Mozart's concerto. I say this not to diminish the elegant performance of soloist Yuja Wang, but because the concerto paled by comparison to the infinitely more vibrant Respighi. The highlights were Mozart’s frenzied cadenzas, which offered Ms Wang an opportunity to demonstrate her brilliant articulation and style (she didn’t disappoint). Wang infused the music with a sense of natural growth and development. When a theme returned, it had somehow matured under the careful control of the soloist. It’s as if the whole concerto was a coming of age story – not an unnatural claim given the work’s nickname Jeunehomme (young man).

The Andantino second movement is noted for its melancholy attitude, aided by a plaintive C minor tonality. Mr Dutoit and Ms Wang’s interpretation seemed more ruminative than mournful, bringing a spaciousness and thoughtfulness to the music. The climax of Ms Wang’s performance was not in the concerto itself, but in her encore: Volodos’ variations on Mozart’s "Turkish March". The crowd chuckled upon hearing the opening melody, but soon Wang’s unbelievable agility caused jaws to drop around the room, garnering a storm of applause.

The second half of the program was a dazzling feat of color and sound. Respighi's trilogy, consisting of Roman Festivals, Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome, is a feast of images from maddening circuses to shimmering waters to nightingales singing in the sleeping pines.

Festivals opened with pure excitement. Trumpet calls, high strings, and suspenseful percussion paved the way for an energetic, bold performance. The orchestra beautifully transitioned in and out of changing soundscapes, leading soft, marching violins into colorful passages of bells and chimes. These marvelous changes of texture were a standout characteristic of this concert. Playful solos peppered the piece, from a staggering, drunken trombone to a strumming mandolin. Horn calls joined with moving strings to create a dizzying and dynamic impression of a Roman holiday.

After the briefest pause, Fontane di Roma and Pini di Roma were performed attacca as one large movement, building the more subdued tones of the fountains (carried by a tremendous woodwind section) into the sweeping, ethereal sound of the pines. The orchestra was so thrillingly large that it could barely fit on the stage. In fact, it didn’t! Two brass sections occupied opposing balconies, sending down triumphant calls and responses. To add to the grandeur, a recorded birdsong was sweetly woven into the orchestral texture along with two harps, a piano, and an organ.

My biggest grievance is that there was no time to breathe between pieces. The mood of each piece in the triptych is so different that I wanted time to absorb the music, to reflect, and to anticipate what would be coming next. This felt like being force-fed the music at the whim of a hurried conductor. Despite this small complaint, this Respighi trilogy will stand out as a big, fat triumph for New York Philharmonic and Charles Dutoit. At the end of the evening, I was so lost in its splendor that I had almost forgotten about the Mozart.

****1