A New Conductor Brings New Problems for the NY Philharmonic

New York Philharmonic music director Jaap van Zweden (Chris Lee)
Under Jaap van Zweden’s baton, the orchestra is no longer sloppy. It’s merely unmusical.

For years, the maniacal self-absorption of Music Director Alan Gilbert allowed the New York Philharmonic to deteriorate into a sloppy shambles and become the worst of the world’s best orchestras. This season, there is a new music director, Dutch conductor and violinist Jaap van Zweden. Van Zweden gave his opening subscription series this weekend, and the transformation was obvious: Under his baton, the orchestra is no longer sloppy. Now it is merely unmusical.

The concert opened with the debut of Filament, a new work by contemporary composer Ashley Fure that sounded like a parody of late 60s experimental music. The orchestra was supplemented by three soloists in casual hipster attire on spotlit pedestals: a trumpet, a bass, and — out in the aisle — a bassoon. These were in turn supplemented by fifteen “moving voices,” singers who prowled around the audience with black plastic megaphones that resembled witches’ hats. The piece lasted 14 minutes:  roughly ten minutes of demonic possession followed by four minutes of a traffic accident in the Holland Tunnel. The composer’s stated goals included “to democratize proximity” and “to activate a theater for the social.” I feel compelled to note that, once the singers had finished hissing into their megaphones like a suite of deflating tires and van Zweden had turned slowly and balletically to stare at the audience as the lights were gradually dimmed to black, we were not left feeling that our proximities had been particularly democratized.

The audience, however, loved it. A few people stood up to applaud, and all sides murmured and bubbled about how “cool” it was.

Fure’s piece was followed by Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto, for which van Zweden was joined by world-famous Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov. The “Emperor” is Beethoven’s fifth and final piano concerto, an epitome of his middle period, uniquely and typically Beethovenian in its unusual approach. The first movement opens not with a theme, but with a cadenza flourish that bathes the piano in the home key and prepares the audience to be launched into the concerto like a warmup for the opening pitch. The beautiful and romantic second movement is glued directly into the rondo finale — a technique with which Beethoven had experimented in his “Appassionata” sonata.

Van Zweden and Trifonov teamed up to bring out the least in the piece. Their performance was boring, methodical, dramatically uninteresting. Trifonov, wearing a narrow grey necktie that dangled down his shirtfront like the highway to nowhere, put plenty of energy into the keyboard, but tried to play Beethoven as though it were Chopin or Tchaikovsky. He couldn’t get his foot off the damper pedal and blurred sharp passages. Van Zweden conducted as though his sole object was to make sure that all the notes happened. One senses that Beethoven was on the program only because it is a statutory requirement — both conductor and soloist sounded as though they wished to be doing something else.

Their performance was followed by a lengthy standing ovation, which left a small scattering of audience members sitting in their seats, shaking their heads.

The highlight of the evening was the second half of the program, an exceptional rendering of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The acoustic space was better-served by the larger ensemble (twice the size of Beethoven’s orchestra) and van Zweden brought out every ounce of the piece’s huge stored energy.

The Rite of Spring debuted in Paris in 1913 and prompted a “hostile demonstration” from the audience. Most reviews skewered the work as barbaric. Now, wherever it appears on a concert program, it serves as a tacit warning to the critics: Be careful what you say about new music, because you’re probably just behind the times. In this case, we should presumably be cautious about criticizing the new music of Ashely Fure. But there is an important difference: Stravinsky’s work was a simulation of barbarism, a highly successful phony. Stravinsky didn’t like Beethoven, but he knew Beethoven as one knows his own family history. A composer who doesn’t know Beethoven — or a conductor who can’t play Beethoven — is like a mathematician who can’t add, or a writer who can’t spell. Beethoven is one of the great cornerstones of musical civilization, and of western culture more broadly.

Fure’s work is the reverse of Stravinsky’s: genuine barbarism, phony sophistication. Fure doesn’t have to pretend not to know Beethoven — his music would never have interested her enough to study even for the purpose of rejecting it. In that respect, Fure perfectly suits the audience who sat listening to its debut: a new generation of concertgoers that has never listened to Beethoven, but that knows what screaming sounds like.

You could never fool an ordinary New Yorker like that. If a cab driver or a plumber felt like listening to a traffic accident, he’d know where to find it. The cultural elite, however, are willing to pay for it — and actually want to pay for it. It is their badge of betterness. Van Zweden may not have a feel for classical music, but he is giving his audience the orchestra they deserve.

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