Conductor: Jaap van Zweden
Glass: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra
Katia and Marielle Labèque: Piano
Mahler: Symphony No. 5
As one of the countless lovers of new music still mourning the departure of Alan Gilbert and his resolutely adventurous programming from the New York Philharmonic, I have also resigned myself to giving well-respected music director designate Jaap van Zweden a chance, renewing my subscription, and looking forward to the future with – let’s face it – a few unavoidable pangs of anxiety.
And, ready or not, the future officially started this week with a first subscription program that made my jaw drop in surprise and excitement at the perspective of the New York premiere of Philip Glass’ Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra performed by the long-celebrated French duo that is the Labèque sisters. Moreover, in a smart move that had the new music director pay tribute to a former music director of the Philharmonic, it had been paired with Gustav Mahler’s sprawling Symphony No. 5, an epic journey famous for its grandeur, its intensity, and its ubiquitous Adagietto.
So even if the world was going to end on Saturday, September 23, as it is apparently suggested in the ever so reliable Bible, things were unquestionably looking up on Friday night.
Beside the possible end of the world, last Friday night also found its place in history because it was the first time EVER that a concert work by Philip Glass was performed by the New York Philharmonic, a fact that is both astonishing and – as my friend Nicole rightly put it – unpardonable. But this lamentable state of things was at long last corrected on Friday with his downright engaging Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, which had been composed especially for the Labèque sisters in 2015.
As if to make up for all that lost time, the composition makes pianists and orchestra hit the ground running, and does not really slow them down for the first two movements, which were inventive, lively and relentlessly driven. But the slow third movement was the one that stood out for me with its subtle, artless and so thrilling beauty. Pianists and orchestra worked together tightly throughout the performance, which resulted in plenty of intriguingly intricate textures and delectably unusual harmonies, but kind of deprived us from hearing the Labèque sisters distinctly strike out on their own. That said, the ovation was tremendous, Philip Glass looked very pleased, and that was a pretty cool way to kick start the New York Philharmonic’s season.
If Glass was new territory for the orchestra, Mahler was most definitely not, and it seemed pretty obvious that most of the packed audience was there to hear a classic from the Viennese master one more time, not to celebrate Glass’ long-overdue entry into the Philharmonic's repertoire. And they sure got to hear his fifth symphony loud and clear for the expected 70 minutes, starting with a dramatically stoic funeral march and ending with a spontaneously uplifting finale.
There was, of course, a lot going on in between and the orchestra sounded as solid as ever, with truly exceptional contributions by the various soloists, under the very involved baton of their new maestro.
However, Friday's performance will mostly be remembered for its impressive level of energy, clarity and brightness, if not for its emotional impact, which was often overshadowed by all the exacting music-making. Even the Adagietto, while impeccably drawn out from the stage, was not as magical as it could have been, but I’ll blame that issue on the relentless coughing coming from the audience.
When all had been said and done, the audience went wild again, and it seems safe to say that Jaap van Zweden has arrived with a ground-breaking, resounding and, yes, promising bang.