The New York Philharmonic, under the baton of Jaap van Zweden, served an appetizing pairing: Mozart’s intimate Sinfonia concertante in E flat major was the hors d’oeuvre, and Shostakovich’s triumphant Symphony no. 8 was the entrée.  

The Sinfonia Concertante provided the ear with satisfying, structured piece of musical architecture. The well-constructed form allows Mozart’s themes to take you on a bit of a rollercoaster, with little rises and falls leaving you in suspended anticipation of what is to come. It is full of Mozart’s signature dynamic surprises, tuneful melodies and harmonic drama, juggled with incredible balance.

Jaap van Zweden © Hans van der Woerd
Jaap van Zweden
© Hans van der Woerd

The sound, however, was not as balanced. The small orchestra did not carry so well in large Avery Fisher Hall. At times, I would have to lean forward to better hear the music. The solo viola would occasionally sound faint and muffled in comparison with the solo violin which projected much more easily.

Despite the acoustics, Sheryl Staples (solo violin) and Cynthia Phelps (solo viola) played beautifully. They gave motion to the melodies, creating a musical conversation. The brilliant soprano voice of the violin mingled nicely with the warmer alto voice of the viola. There were moments when the two soloists were locked together in a laser-focused union with absolute precision and unanimity of tone. These moments, such as the duet at the close of the second movement, were the highlights of the piece.

Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 8, upped the ante. In comparison with the modest instrumentation of the Sinfonia Concertante, the orchestra for the Shostakovich was the size of an army. From the first note, the sound, scope and stakes of the music were magnified from what was previously heard. New colors, sonorities and emotions created an entirely fresh atmosphere, heralded by the entrance of the low woodwinds in a murky fog of sound. The English horn solo in the first movement stopped me dead. The surprise of this transition, going from a thunderous forte to a subito piano, was magnificently theatrical – a truly jaw-dropping moment.

In the second movement, the interplay between solo piccolo and low woodwinds provided some light-spirited liveliness. The third movement, with its train-like forward momentum, was awesome. Second violins started the engines and the cello section entered in a full-bodied pizzicato, kicking the orchestra into gear, while the crash cymbal bounced on the upbeats. You could feel the energy, like electricity, in the air.

In the softer passages, such as the bass clarinet solo, Jaap van Zweden would gently rock the orchestra back and forth, moving them like leaves in the wind. These subdued, atmospheric sections of the symphony (featuring flutter-tongued flute) provide a necessary contrast to the more extreme moments of tragedy and triumph that reflect the turning of the tide in World War II.

In the climactic moments, tremolo strings, booming bass drum and mountainous brass came at you with tremendous force, unafraid to devour anything their path. When the orchestra reached the height of its crescendo, the music suddenly transcended into a peaceful, soft serenity. The symphony ended on a sublimely optimistic major chord.

Shostakovich summarized the piece by saying, “Life is beautiful. All that is dark and evil will rot away, and beauty will triumph.” This performance of the symphony certainly triumphed.