The era of the Philharmonic’s maestro is coming to an end


It was heartening, though, to see violist Cynthia Phelps spotlighted in Mozart’s Symphonic Concerto in E flat, a double concerto that also showcased violinist Hsieh Sheryl Staples has been a popular soloist. Violists don’t get enough love, and Phelps was one of the first brave players to perform in makeshift concerts with the touring New York Philharmonic during the pandemic. (Another pioneering musician, violinist Fiona Simon, retired Thursday after 39 years with the Philharmonic.)

Phelps and Stambaud were perfectly in tune with each other but less so with the orchestra, another symptom of Van Zweden’s shortcomings with the Philharmonic. He never succeeded in balancing the power of this orchestra, even in the renovated Geffen Hall, where the acoustics were crystal clear. And, while it’s difficult to find a sweet spot in Mozart’s music that suits both the brightness of the violin and the soft warmth of the viola, it’s not impossible. Brahms’s Double Concerto, played later in the program, was similarly uneven, with the mismatched soloists in extrovert cellist Carter Bray and less dramatic violinist Frank Wong bringing extra trouble.

A better fit for Van Zweden and the Philharmonic would be Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet and Strings in C minor, which features trumpet soloist Christopher Martin from the orchestra, But with the addition of some pianist Igor Levitt to the cast. Here, there’s a palpable, exciting collaborative spirit and chamber-music clarity from the entire orchestra, as well as airy pop melodies and playfully eerie effects.

At the center of it all was Levitt, who often showed himself able to make the piano do whatever he wanted. With deft pedal work and the intuitive, on-the-fly style of a jazz player, he can express the playful lightness and the devastating enormity of an avalanche in the same passage, blending symphonic color into a single instrument.

A week earlier there was another notable guest soloist: violist Antoine Tamestit, who made his Philharmonic debut playing Sofia Gubaidulina’s Viola Concerto , another one from the band. This 1996 concerto was also interpreted with chilling sensitivity by Fan Zhideng. After opening with a rapidly escalating cadenza, Tamestit acted as a Charon-like guide through a desolate landscape with no sign of reprieve or escape in sight. The quartet’s lead string player tuned his instrument a quarter tone lower than the rest of the orchestra, adding to the unstable atmosphere.

Gubaidulina’s concerto is paired with Mozart’s Requiem, which has a hint of redemption. Mozart’s Requiem is followed by his short motet “Ave Verum Corpus” as the coda. The Mass features talented soloists including the pristine-voiced soprano Amanda Forsyth, the gorgeous mezzo-soprano Cecilia Hall, the horn tenor Nicholas Pan and the joyfully vibrato bass baritone Michael Suemuir; however, as a group, their sounds were too distinct to blend smoothly together. Fan Zhideng led the Philharmonic Orchestra together with the excellent singers of “Sacred Music” and returned to the old habit of playing the score with such fervor that it made parts such as “Hellfire” lose their weight. In the end, the piece sounded less impressive than the guest conductor did.

Before the concert, I had always hoped to repeat the “Saint Paulo” concert. The Passion of Matthew. But instead, this requiem represents Van Zweden’s tenure: no harm done, but nothing worthy of note either.



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