Review: An Audition Season Begins at the Philharmonic

It’s audition season at the New York Philharmonic.

Well, not officially. But ever since the orchestra’s music director, Jaap van Zweden, announced that he would step down in 2024, every guest conductor’s appearance has carried the weight of speculation. When an outsider takes the podium these days, it’s hard to get through the concert without thinking: Could this be our future?

And, for the next six weeks, the Philharmonic’s calendar is filled with nothing but guests.

It began Thursday with Jakub Hrusa, a conductor with an ear for rarities and the skill to make persuasive cases for them. Next up are Santtu-Matias Rouvali, a charismatic and promising young talent; Manfred Honeck, a master of the standard repertory; Herbert Blomstedt, an elder statesman who, now in his mid-90s, is unlikely to be a music director again; and Gustavo Dudamel, who is being given substantial real estate with a Schumann festival in March. (That’s an awful lot of Y chromosomes, though other notable appearances in recent months have included Dalia Stasevska, Simone Young and Susanna Mälkki.)

Hrusa last led the Philharmonic in 2019 — as it happens, at the end of another stretch of guest programs. Beyond bringing out a dynamic sound often absent from van Zweden’s indelicate style, Hrusa had a subtle gift then of giving the audience something it would enjoy but not necessarily ask for: Dvorak, say, but the underrated Sixth Symphony.

That happened again with this week’s concerts at Alice Tully Hall. (I attended the one on Friday.) The evening had the surface-level same-old of dead European dudes — Central Europeans, to be exact — but was rich with novelty and spirited throughout, enough to inspire applause in the middle of a symphony. Two of the three works had never been played by the Philharmonic, and the centerpiece concerto, featuring the pianist Yuja Wang, hadn’t been on a subscription program since the 1980s.

Even among those rarities were names you should but don’t see here often: Zoltan Kodaly and Bohuslav Martinu.

Kodaly was represented by his Concerto for Orchestra, which premiered in 1941 — ahead of the more famous work of the same name by his Hungarian compatriot Bela Bartok. The piece harkens back to Bach, in its “Brandenburgs”-like treatment of the ensemble and contrapuntal writing, but with a folk flavor.

Under Hrusa’s baton it had the feel of a festive opener, and the Philharmonic players responded accordingly: a big sound delivered at a breakneck pace, yet crisply articulated (which helps at Tully, whose acoustics tend to punish grandeur with muddle). The score is not without its swerves, though, and Hrusa navigated them by dropping to a whisper in an instant for lyrical, chamber-size passages and making space for intriguing sonorities that arose from, for example, the doubling of cello pizzicato in the bassoon.

Martinu’s Symphony No. 1, from 1942, was comparatively quiet — at least at first, because Hrusa took a long, almost theatrical view of the piece, building toward a climax and threading the four discrete movements. With a soft approach, his opening, of upward chromatic scales passed around the orchestra, was a garden of strangely beautiful flowers in bloom.

Those scales recur later, but Hrusa didn’t overemphasize them. Rather, they arose gracefully amid the work’s shifting character: the unsteady and rapidly escalating second movement, with strings given fleeting fragments of a phrase that could just as easily soar, the shards of a Dvorak melody; the thick textures of the darker third movement; and the dancing finale, in which even dolce passages sprint as if sprung.

Yuja Wang performed Liszt’s First Piano Concerto wearing chunky white sunglasses — doctor’s orders, but readily accepted by an audience familiar with her blend of glamour and thoughtful artistry.Credit…Chris Lee

It was heartening to see that nearly all of the audience had stayed after intermission for the Martinu, given that the evening’s clearer selling point had come earlier: Wang playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat.

Wang has Liszt’s storied star power as a performer: easily able to command a stage and entertainingly showy, yet sensitive and never excessively emotive. Her glamour is so established, she came out wearing chunky sunglasses — doctor’s orders as she recovers from a recent procedure — and the audience simply greeted it, with cheers, as a fashion statement.

She played the opening with muscularity and precision, matched by the orchestra’s vigorous reading of the first movement’s theme. But later, in a nocturne-like solo, Wang exquisitely flipped the piece’s scale to that of an intimate recital. She made the concerto sound better than it actually is.

In the spirit of Liszt, she returned with an encore of crowd-pleasing, breathless athleticism: the Toccatina from Kapustin’s Opus 40 Concert Etudes. But then she came back — still virtuosic, yet expressive and absolutely lovely — for Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words” (Op. 67, No. 2). As she played, Hrusa listened from the conductor’s podium, his eyes closed and his head nodding in bliss, a stand-in for all of us there.

New York Philharmonic

Performed Friday at Alice Tully Hall, Manhattan.

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