In Jaap van Zweden's first string of concerts conducting the New York Philharmonic since it was announced, earlier this year, that he would be succeeding Alan Gilbert as music director, the orchestra sounded more enlivened than they have in months. The Dutch conductor and violinist, who previously served as the youngest concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra and who continues to serve as music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, led the musicians through a program of Wagner, Tchaikovsky and the première of a viola concerto by Julia Adolphe. Mr van Zweden's approach is much more brusque and breakneck than the occasionally tepid Mr Gilbert's, and both musicians and audience seemed galvanized by his presence throughout all three pieces.

Jaap van Zweden © Marco Borggreve
Jaap van Zweden
© Marco Borggreve

The program began with Wagner's prelude to Act I of Lohengrin, one of his earlier operas best known for its ubiquitous "bridal chorus". The opera was composed from 1846 through 1848, during which time Wagner was involved in anti-aristocracy protests in Dresden. The prelude's serene shimmering offered a hesitant, otherworldly respite from political turmoil and the protests that have erupted and endured throughout New York City since 9 November. The gossamer opening from the first violins blended perfectly into a gradual build-up as first the winds, then the brass, joined them in a series of buttery-smooth entrances. The majestic, blaring climax quickly tapered back off to the quiet delicacy of the beginning, eventually receding fully into silence.

A similar ebb and flow of sound could be heard throughout Julia Adolphe's Unearth, Release, a three-movement viola concerto co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the League of American Orchestras. Ms Adolphe personifies the viola as a "she", striving to express her singular identity while not getting subsumed by the orchestra. The resulting dialogue, in Ms Adolphe's words, "reveals a transformation from sinking to swimming to floating, from drowning in uncertainty toward embracing ambiguity." Under the baton of Mr van Zweden, and in the hands of the Philharmonic and soloist Cynthia Phelps, the concerto sounded convincing and at times rather beautiful; however, the work was perhaps not as adventurous as one would have hoped. The formulaic structure and lack of unconventional or extended techniques contributed to an execution that was rather tame, though admittedly enjoyable.

During the first movement, "Captive Voices", dissonant percussion and strings engulfed the listeners into an atmosphere of sheer foreboding, with jagged yet legato melodies from the viola interspersing the apprehension. The dialogue followed a familiar, aquatic trajectory of swelling strings, shimmering harp, and glints and pings and plucks from the percussion section. Ms Phelps brought raw intensity to the solo lines, which became more frantic during the second movement, "Surface Tension", which was shorter, with tighter and less sprawling lines. The final movement, "Embracing Mist", was more uncertain, with the viola part sounding interrogative and plaintive over the oceanic, undulating violins, dragging double basses, and plodding brass. The ebb and flow ended with silence from the orchestra and a questioning, uptilted phrase from the viola.

Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 4 in F minor rounded out the program. Mr van Zweden took an aggressive approach from the opening fanfares, which was painfully loud, all the way through frenetic cadence of the fourth movement, complete with a frenzied percussionist clanging the cymbals with a look of sheer terror on his face. Everything in between – from the nostalgic oboe solo and cascading woodwind runs in the second movement to the playful pizzicato passages of the third – were executed with more crispness and energy than the Philharmonic has exhibited in similar repertoire in recent months. If this concert is an indication of what we might expect in coming seasons from the Philharmonic – complete with gender diversity, new music, and excellent interpretations of 19th-century fare – you won't hear any complaints from me.