Conductor: Jaap van Zweden
Stravinsky: Violin Concerto in D
Leila Josefowicz: Violin
Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Debussy: La Mer: Trois esquisses symphoniques
I had to wait over eight agonizingly long years before hearing Igor Stravinsky’s idiosyncratic little violin concerto live again, but since patience is apparently a virtue with priceless rewards, last week I got abundantly rewarded when I serendipitously got to hear it not only once, but twice. And by no less than Leonidas Kavakos with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night, and then Leila Josefowicz with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Davis Geffen Hall on Saturday night. And suddenly, all was well in the world again (and that takes a lot these days).
So I had to suck up my contempt for going out on a Saturday night one more time, and happily headed down to Lincoln Center for my big New York Philharmonic season-opening performance (Yes, that was that kind of a week). As a substantial bonus, the program also included La Mer, the stunning orchestral work by Stravinsky’s colleague and friend Claude Debussy. Even better, I found one of those mysterious little envelopes filled with goodies welcoming returning subscribers on my seat in a happily buzzing concert hall.
As if van Zweden, the New York Phil’s new artistic director, wanted to assert his dedication to bringing new works to music-loving New Yorkers, the program started with Agamemnon, a composition by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen that had been commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and was having its world premiere last week. Inspired by Greek mythology, the tone poem combined resounding war-like chaos with a little help from an electric guitar, an electric bass, and a discernably jazz influence. There were a lot of conflicts going on among the several characters until the finale, when Kassandra suddenly got up and spoke a few lines while maestro van Zweden was keeping the orchestra under quiet tension. And that was that.
Although an in-depth comparative study between Leonidas Kavakos’ and Leila Josefowicz’ performances of Stravinsky’s violin concerto almost seemed inevitable, it would also have been an exercise in futility, both of them being artists well-known for their outstanding musicianship and insatiable spirit of adventure. It was kind of unfair to Josefowicz too, since Kavakos would benefit from the vastly superior acoustics of Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium, and consequently sound better by default. But then again, life is not always fair.
Stravinsky famously used his lack of knowledge about the violin and his close friendship with American violinist Samuel Dushkin to come up with a piece that did not heed the conventional limits of violin playing, but instead boasted a constant stream on inventiveness that seduces nowadays more than ever. In the end, after all had been said, done and played, I am happy to confirm that, with a firm grasp on the feisty score and a tight connection with the superb orchestras accompanying them, both soloists delivered tremendously exciting performances. Now all I can hope for is not to have to wait another eight years before hearing it again.
After intermission we got more Stravinsky, and of the more unusual kind too, with his Symphonies of Wind Instruments, an ironically string-less composition made for woodwind and brass instruments. Dedicated to the memory of his friend Debussy, the 10-minute, one-movement piece came out somber and respectful.
And then, logically enough, we moved on to Debussy himself by way of La Mer, one of his most remarkable and popular works, never mind its inauspicious debut. Although the composer did not care for the real thing and routinely stayed away from large bodies of water, preferring drawing inspiration from visual representations of them, he nevertheless created a richly evocative composition that the New York Philharmonic beautifully brought to vivid life with radiant colors, powerful winds, splashy waves and a big bad storm. In fact, while listening to such a powerfully eloquent depiction of the sea, one almost does not need the real thing.