Fast forward six years: Farewell to the New York Philharmonic Master

Yap, we barely know you.

New York Philharmonic Music Director Jaap van Zweden conducted a lean, powerful rendition of Mahler’s mammoth Second Symphony at David Geffen Hall on Thursday. After two more performances on Saturday, he will leave the podium at Lincoln Center, just six years after taking the podium.

Since Mahler himself died in 1911 after two years in office, no leader of the philharmonic arts has appeared less in front of performers and audiences. person or master.

He had no signature moves, and his choice of works bore no personal imprint. His interpretations of the classics only occasionally relaxed from their tense onslaught. Although I wasn’t always unhappy after hearing that he was hosting the show, I was never inspired to come back and listen to it again.

Fan Zhideng’s tenure had a huge impact on the Philharmonic Orchestra. The orchestra has survived long pandemic lockdowns with renovations to its Geffen Hall home and a trove of music from time immemorial, often by white composers.

But Fan Zhideng, 63, seems more like a participant in all this than a leader. As he prepares to launch his business in New York, he has expressed enthusiasm for hiring industry legend Deborah Borda to return as CEO. Yet having such a powerful, visionary executive partner ultimately made this era feel more like Boda’s than Van Zweden’s.

The pandemic arrived in his second season. Dutch-born violinist Van Zweden got a late start, spending more than a year at home in the Netherlands, seemingly absent from the orchestra even in compliance with social distancing norms in the age of video conferencing.

The long break allowed him and the Philharmonic to take stock. Both parties seemed aware of the inappropriateness, and when he announced in 2021 that he would be leaving and said a main reason was to spend more time with his family in Europe, his tone was full of tactful undertones. Less than a year later, he found a job in Seoul.

Van Zhiden’s final months have been overshadowed by resurgent sexual misconduct allegations within the playing ranks, which should have been his victory lap to attract attention. But his lame-duck status was cemented a year ago, when famed conductor Gustavo Dudamel, as extroverted as van Zweden, was announced as his successor, and the orchestra could hardly resist turning over a new leaf. .

However, even Dudamel might be intimidated by the position. For example, when you serve as conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, which Van Zweden took from good to great in the decade before joining the Philharmonic, you are a high-culture star in the city.

In New York, however, the orchestra and its maestro must compete with the mighty Metropolitan Opera next door and the world-class orchestras that cycle through Carnegie Hall—not to mention the rest of the crowded cultural scene. Oh, and the ghost of Leonard Bernstein still lingers as a reminder that you don’t bring the charisma to the Philharmonic that he did in the 1960s.

It’s an irresistible but perhaps impossible job, and Fan doesn’t use artistry or creativity to define himself. The Philharmonic hired him to repeat what he had done in Dallas, this time with a higher starting point: perform exacting standards and sparkling intensity on all-time favorites that shaped the orchestra’s Beethoven and Bruckner .

As usual in the Philharmonic’s post-Bernstein selections, the choice of Van Zweden and his harsh power embodies a spirit “contrary to the last man standing” – in this case, Alan Gilbert Promoted non-traditional programming and more relaxed music making. “We probably don’t have as many important repertoires as we should,” principal violist Cynthia Phelps told Strings magazine as Van Zweden was about to begin playing.

Translation: Things have gotten a little too interesting under Gilbert, and quite a few players want a return to tradition.

This is a dubious recipe for success. And, in any case, Van Zhiden doesn’t consistently bring the brilliance of Brahms and Shostakovich that one might have hoped for. Surprisingly, for a conductor who is hardly known for contemporary music, his most memorable performances were modern works and premieres, which by all accounts he treated with an honorable sense of responsibility, and He tends to lead with sensitivity.

I’m reminded of his moodiness from David Long’s one-act opera “Prisoners of the State,” and John Adams’s “My Father Knows Charles Ives” sparkled under his direction. Julius Eastman’s brooding Second Symphony was played, as was Sofia Gubaidulina’s darkly obsessive Viola Concerto a few weeks ago.

In his classic works, however, van Zweden often seems to imitate the fiery style of Georg Solti of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the 1970s and 1980s: roaring sounds; Passionate music; passionate music. The intense fast; the clenched fist to control the diction; the feeling of the conductor’s foot firmly planted on the orchestra’s accelerator.

But if Van Zweden could bring out some of Solti’s edgy brilliance, he and the Philharmonia struggled to evoke Chicago’s awe-inspiring brilliance and gripping tension. The result in New York may be tightly played and precisely detailed – like Mahler on Thursday – but looming in the memory is Van Zweiden’s busy Beethoven Ninth Symphony, a dull “The Rite of Spring” and a song called “The Pines of Rome”. The Immovable Mozart Requiem.

His selection of past music is unusually narrow, devoid of quirk or depth. When the Philharmonic premiered Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 12 two years ago, the work suited Van Zweden’s style very well, but it was led by someone else. Van Zweden was not in New York long enough to offer only a few of the composers at his disposal; this week’s second symphony is only the fourth of Mahler’s Nine symphonies he has conducted here.

The second concert, which lasted nearly an hour and a half, was nicknamed “Resurrection” and consisted of two soloists and a choir of one hundred people, a large orchestra, an organ and church-style bells. One of the universal pieces of classical music. Bernstein played the piece on occasions of celebration (his thousandth Philharmonic performance) and mourning (after the assassination of John F. Kennedy). Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen has scheduled it for his final program with the San Francisco Symphony a year later.

On Thursday, the piece was clean, clear, well played and efficiently managed, with Van Zweden calmly enjoying every thrust until another explosive climax. The textures respect Mahler’s passion for transparency: the flute is audible through the strings, the harp is palpable in the brass. Ekaterina Gubanova sang the great alto aria “Urlicht” with a mellow tone, while Hanna-Elizabeth Müller’s soprano was rich but not heavy, along with the mellow New York Philharmonic chorus. Soar in the finale.

The rapturous applause raised the question: Would Van Zhideng have finally settled down at the Philharmonic and in New York had the pandemic not derailed him?

Many were skeptical from the outset whether an artist known primarily for his strict rehearsal discipline could possess the broad vision to guide a major orchestra into the future. But sometimes it takes a while for a music director to gel. At the Cleveland Orchestra, it took Franz Welser Most and the players some six years to find their true groove. When he leaves in 2027, it will be a quarter of a century later.

Recently at Geffen Hall, people have seen what is possible. In October, the phrases in Schubert’s “Unfinished” symphony felt less like they had been rigorously pruned than like they had been elegantly sculpted, their muscles left to ferment naturally. Fan Zhideng has always been an urbane concerto accompanist, and in January, with pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, the aristocratic and elegant soloist, Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto sparkled and surged. , no pressure.

Finally, the music started.

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