By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Jaap van Zweden, the New York Philharmonic’s incoming music director, doesn’t officially start until next year. But he seized the occasion of his first opening night with his new orchestra to make a statement.
With these performances of the Glass concerto, featuring the splendid pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque as soloists, Mr. van Zweden has filled a gaping hole in the Philharmonic’s history. Overlooking Mr. Glass’s work had to have been a deliberate choice by a succession of music directors, because, love him or hate him, he has been an influential figure in contemporary classical music for some 40 years.
And this 27-minute concerto in three movements, which had its premiere in 2015 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is inventive and unusual. The orchestra starts off abuzz with rippling, subdued riffs. Almost immediately the pianos, backed by various instruments, play a slippery theme in chords that dip and rise almost step by step.
The music is fidgety and full of harmonic shifts, run through with two-against-three rhythms. There’s a mellow, jazzy quality at play: Imagine Gershwin as a Minimalist.
Most concertos have combative passages between the soloist and orchestra. Not this one. The pianists and orchestra are like allies, and that quality persists in the darker second movement, which has long stretches in which two-note motifs keep oscillating and you can’t decide whether the mood is soothing or ominous. The pianists, like trusted guides, take the orchestra (and listeners) through a pulsing thicket of music.
There are moments when what sounds like an echo of that slippery opening theme emerges: The pianos try to catch hold of the tune and pin it down. Mr. Glass ends his concerto with a wistful slow movement. Recurring figures in triplets hover in the pianos, while a sighing, spare melody floats above in bare octaves.
The piano parts, though not showy, are detailed and difficult. The Labèque sisters played a scintillating and elegant performance, and Mr. van Zweden nicely conveyed the mix of sassiness and delicacy in the music.
It was an important night for Mr. Glass, and for the Philharmonic, and an encouraging signal from Mr. van Zweden, not generally known for contemporary music, that he won’t stint it during his tenure. But we’ll learn much more about his artistic goals early next year, when he announces the programming for his first season.
It will be interesting, too, to see how the Philharmonic’s 106 “all-stars,” as the orchestra billed its members on Tuesday — complete with packs of musician trading cards in the programs — work with him over time. What was clear this week was that Mr. van Zweden, with his kinetic physical movements and emphatic cues, certainly takes an old-school, top-down approach to conducting.
Glass’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (2015, revised 2016) received its New York premiere, featuring the Labèque sisters, for whom it was written. It’s an attractive and absorbing piece, with more event than you might expect, and far more in the way of external reference than Glass usually gives away: I felt the Ravel G-major concerto whispering behind the second movement, and the slow wind-down of the opening movement distinctly evokes Shostakovich, whom Glass greatly admires. The Labèques played it with absolute commitment and beauty of tone, and van Zweden conducted with real feeling, so that it came over with moment-by-moment inflections that often go missing in more poker-faced specialist readings. There’s a nice video of the whole piece, with the same principals, here. Stick with it: that pops-stopper opening is by no means characteristic.
New York Philharmonic in concert at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, September 22 and 23, 2017 (attended September 23). Jaap van Zweden, Music Director Designate and Conductor; Katia and Marielle Labèque, pianos.
GLASS Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (New York premiere)
NEW YORK—Jaap van Zweden officially takes over as music director of the New York Philharmonic a year from now, but he was fully in charge on Friday evening (September 22) when the orchestra gave its first subscription concert of the season. On the program were Philip Glass’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, heard in its New York premiere, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. There was no apparent conceptual link between the two, but the pairing made good sense in terms of balance and contrast, with the 25-minute concerto proving to be an agreeable warmup, and then some, to the 70-minute Mahler, the event’s principal draw.
Incredibly enough, inclusion of the Glass concerto—one of at least a dozen works by him in the genre—represented the first time the Philharmonic has ever programmed one of the composer’s concert works. Whatever the weaknesses of the concerto, which dates from 2015, it came off well enough to say it’s about time. Early on one noticed with approval elements that would lend contrast to the familiar repeated patterns of Glass’s music: rhythms that imparted a Latin or jazzy feel to the music; percussion effects that reinforced those rhythms or were welcome in their own right; and melodic strands that permeated the prevailing chordal texture.
The concerto is in the usual three-movement form, although the slow movement comes last rather than in the middle. More than once it seemed as if fewer repetitions of a pattern would make the piece stronger. In the last movement a four-note alternating figure, often followed by a two-note sigh, never seemed to go away, yet it also had a strangely mesmerizing effect. The Labèque sisters, Katia and Marielle, for whom the concerto was written, were on hand to ensure that the concerto’s virtuosic elements were compellingly discharged.
The Philharmonic thus embarks on a season in which it officially lacks a music director. But it will not be rudderless. The much vaunted Deborah Borda has returned as its president and chief executive officer after many years running the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Don’t expect stagnation.
"Glass' new concerto has no lack of vitality, not with the Labèques, and he intentionally avoids transparency. Instead he employs the pianos as added glitter and grit to the big orchestra.
The first movement is exuberant. At 78, Glass is long past his own infatuations with straightforward cadences and has become a master of arresting chord changes. A similarly fast second movement, however, begins a process of tonal darkening, with double basses producing an ominous unpinning to the pianos. The third movement begins in, and retains, a solemn quiet.
Dudamel kept the pulse in the background and brought out broad expressivity. "
The concerto was premiered on May 28, 2015 with Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel conducting