Review: A Surprise Conductor Makes a Superb Debut

After decades of attending orchestra concerts, I’m still impressed when a conductor is able not only to jump in on short notice, but also confidently to take on a program planned by others.

Especially when — as with the New York Philharmonic on Wednesday at Alice Tully Hall — the works, though hardly rarities, are not often heard and pose technical and interpretive challenges: Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 (“Winter Dreams”).

Dima Slobodeniouk was the fill-in, making his Philharmonic debut leading a concert that had been devised by Semyon Bychkov, who withdrew a week ago. (The orchestra only said that Bychkov “will be unavailable to conduct.”)

Slobodeniouk, the music director of the adventurous Galicia Symphony Orchestra in Spain and the former principal conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in Finland, arrived in New York fresh from an appearance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I’m not surprised that his Boston engagement was praised: Slobodeniouk had one of the most auspicious Philharmonic debuts of recent years, leading the orchestra in a Shostakovich concerto played with glittering brightness and a stylish, colorful and exuberant account of the Tchaikovsky.

Shostakovich composed this work in 1947 and ’48, a period when his stock with the Soviet authorities who policed culture had once again plummeted. Perhaps that accounts for the elusive nature of the first movement, which he called a Nocturne: music of pensive, brooding darkness unfolding at a moderate, inexorable tempo. The violin plays an elegiac, wayward melody that seems just eloquently melancholy.

The soloist, Karen Gomyo, making her Philharmonic subscription series debut, conveyed with richly warm and textured sound the ruminative quality of a lyrical line that keeps trying to take clear shape; the orchestra supported — almost comforted — her with plush, wistful chords, rich with deep strings. Yet Gomyo pressed below the surface to suggest that this music was not simply sad, but truly grief-stricken.

The Scherzo comes as a complete contrast: biting and frenetic music, in breathless perpetual motion, with an intensely difficult violin part that tussles with a rattling, boisterous orchestra, especially some ornery woodwinds. A noble yet still dark Passacaglia slow movement leads to a vehement cadenza, and then a Burlesque finale. Here the bitter, almost hostile, ironic Shostakovich seems to come through in episodes of blaring fanfares and faux-triumphant marches. The orchestra captured it with brilliant sharpness, and Gomyo was extraordinary, dispatching the tangle of technical challenges with fervor and command.

Tchaikovsky was 26 when he completed his “Winter Dreams” Symphony. He struggled with writing it, and later expressed mixed feelings about it. (He revised it in 1874.) But whenever I hear it, especially in a performance as good as this one, I wish I could have told Tchaikovsky to go easier on his youthful self: It’s a spirited, well-crafted and beguiling piece.

Slobodeniouk found an ideal balance between breezy tranquillity and jabs of somberness in the first movement, “Daydreams of a Winter Journey.” The lovely, lyrical slow movement; the restless Scherzo, with its Mendelssohnian lightness; and the episodic Finale, which builds to a driving coda — all were splendidly performed.

New York Philharmonic

This program is repeated through Friday at Alice Tully Hall, Manhattan;

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