Saturday November 19th, 2016 - Even before I started going to The New York Philharmonic faithfully, I was a fan of Cynthia Phelps (above) from her work with Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Tonight, Ms. Phelps was center-stage at Geffen Hall, playing a brand new viola concerto by composer Julia Adolphe. The program further featured works by two of my extreme favorite composers - Wagner and Tchaikovsky - and was conducted by the Philharmonic's Music Director designate, Jaap van Zweden.
It has been ten years since The Metropolitan Opera last performed LOHENGRIN, and I for one have really missed it; I was grateful tonight for the opportunity to hear the opera's Act I prelude, and - under Maestro van Zweden's baton - the artists of the Philharmonic gave it a stunning performance.
Wagner wrote of the prelude as being a depiction of the descent of the Holy Grail to Earth; it opens on high, with ethereal violins, and the rapture slowly spreads from one section of the orchestra to another, creating a sonic glow. At the very end, a return to the stratosphere with a pianissimo whisper from the violins leaves us breathless. Maestro van Zweden molded the piece lovingly, controlling the layerings of sound to perfection and creating an organic whole. It is simply an astonishing and unique piece of music.
Cynthia Phelps, gowned in blue, then took the stage to a warm welcome for Julia Adolphe's viola concerto; entitled Unearth, Release, the concerto is in three movements, each being sub-titled. The first is Captive Voices, and it opens on a mysterious note with the viola playing in the low register. The composer employs a variety of percussion effects, and here the vibraphone sounds eerily. The viola remains unsettled - as if talking to itself - and then rises slowly out of the depths. A brief shimmer in the violins, a gong resonates ominously, and then the music turns big and cinematic; bells sound, the horns give voice, and magically the harp enters the mix: the concerto's most intriguing passage - for viola and harp in a pinging dialogue - ensues. An odd, probably sub-conscious quote from LA FORZA DEL DESTINO pricked up my ear; deep, sustained notes from Ms. Phelps, and then her line rises to mingle with the harp again as the music fades into air.
The second movement, Surface Tension, begins with an animated, scurrying passage. The viola is kept busy against shifting rhythmic patterns from the orchestra until the movement comes to an abrupt halt. The dreamlike opening of the third movement, Embracing Mist, features Frank Huang's violin playing on high. The viola rises, and the cabasa makes a somewhat creepy appearance. Trumpet and English horn speak up before the music turns more expansive, over-lain by a brief horn duet. Ms. Phelps's viola whispers to us one last time.
The concerto has a darkling appeal, and Ms. Phelps' playing of it is first-rate; it has the potential to become a vehicle for violists worldwide. The composer took a bow, and the Philharmonic audience - always so responsive when a player from the home team takes a soloist role - showered Ms. Phelps with affection.
Maestro van Zweden (above, in a Marco Borggreve portrait) and the Philharmonic players then gave a thrilling rendering of Tchaikovsky's 4th symphony. From the opening fanfares, the performance was marked by big, passionate playing whilst jewel-like moments from the various solo voices emerged along the way to delight us. During the course of the first movement, my admiration for Maestro van Zweden became unbounded: his very animated podium personality and his brilliant alternation of jabs, lures, and summonses as he cued the various players was simply delightful to behold. Among the most cordial passages were an alternation of violins vs winds over timpani, and big playing from the horns; flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and horn soloists shone forth. The music excited us thru its sense of urgency.
Liang Wang's evocative playing of the oboe solo that opens the second movement was a high point of the performance; in this Andantino, very much à la Russe, the wind soloists again flourished in each opportunity the composer provides.
The dazzling unison plucking of the strings in the Scherzo was vividly crisp and clear tonight, with the Maestro's fingertip control of the volume sometimes honed the sound down to a delicate pianissimo whilst maintaining the lively atmosphere. Oboe and flute again sing appealingly.
A grand, wild start to the concluding Allegro con fuoco established immediately the fact that Maestro van Zweden was taking the designation "con fuoco" ("fiery") very much to heart. The orchestra simply blazed away, a mighty conflagration that dazzled the audience in no uncertain terms. As the symphony reached its fantastical conclusion, the Geffen Hall audience burst into unrestrained shouts of approval and gales of applause: everyone stood up to cheer. Maestro van Zweden returned and signaled the musicians to rise, but instead they remained seated and joined in the applause, giving the conductor a solo bow. The audience loved it.
An evening, then, that moved from the spiritual to the exhilarating, superbly played, and with a Maestro from whom, it seems clear, we can expect great things.