David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York
September 20, 2018

The campaign to promote the New York Philharmonic’s 26th Music Director seemed to start at least a year ago. “New York, Meet Jaap,” the posters broadcast, the craggy Dutchman’s image writ large, the spring evident in his step as he saunters the streets of the Big Apple. And you could be forgiven for glancing down at foot level, for let’s face it, following on from the likes of Boulez, Bernstein, Toscanini and Mengelberg – not forgetting Mahler, for heaven’s sake – Jaap van Zweden has some big shoes to fill. Finally, last night, the wait was over, the home crowd was willing him on – heck, even the Empire State was illuminated in NY Philharmonic red. So how did it go? Answer: pretty darn well.

Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic. Photo © Chris Lee

A Gala performance needs a bit of star power, and Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov was on hand to give it just that. It also had a new commission from Michigan-born Ashley Fure, a devotee of finely tuned kinetic sound experiments and a composer unafraid to haul the music kicking and screaming off of the concert platform and out into the hall. That van Zweden’s first concert kicked off with a substantial new work, and one by a woman, was one in the eye for those who feared he might fight shy of contemporary work.

Several things immediately strike you about the Phil’s new Music Director. Blessed with an eminently readable and precise beat, he clearly knows what he wants as well as how to get it. He’s also a self-effacing fellow, a straight down to business type with a no-nonsense air. It might not please those who want a show pony, but one doubts van Zweden cares, and anyway, if this season opener was anything to go by, he has plenty of other gifts in spades.

The Fure work was certainly ambitious. Entitled Filament, it sought to spin a web of sound around the performance space, from the orchestra on its traditional platform to a choir of megaphone-wielding vocalists scattered throughout the auditorium. Within that ululating mesh of sound, three soloists – double bass, trumpet and bassoon (the latter on a plinth in the middle of the stalls) – threw out unconventionally produced sounds: a metal sheet muted the wailing trumpet, the bassoonist was required to slap her instrument with her tongue, and at one point the bassist was called on to saw at his strings with a credit card.

Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic in Ashley Fure’s Filament. Photo © Chris Lee

The sound was rich, dense, tonally indistinct and often compelling – a bit like an angelic choir trapped inside an outsize piece of Xenakis. At other times it didn’t quite come off. Seated a few rows behind the player, the bassoon was inaudible; without the benefit of binoculars, the bassist’s credit card was impossible to make out (assuming of course that the fact it was a credit card was meant to have significance). According to a note in the score, at one moment Fure aimed to “make the tendons of the audience vibrate in sympathy”, and yes, there was a physical reaction at times, but the alien ritual and processing singers, their specially designed megaphones looking like sections out of diagrams illustrating black hole theory, felt more strange and distancing than welcoming and inclusive. An interesting experiment then, even if it didn’t entirely land.

That was never an issue with the Ravel Piano Concerto in G. It’s a light and brilliant work, and one which found an ideal interpreter in Trifonov, most sensitively supported by van Zweden and his orchestra. For those who know the young virtuoso’s work primarily through the more dour romantic extremes of Rachmaninov and Chopin, it was a delight to see him enter so engagingly into the spirit of this most effervescent of French concertos. Always a physical performer, Trifonov swooped up and down the keyboard, his lean torso bending sinuously to Ravel’s bluesy groove.

Given plenty of elbow room by his maestro, Trifonov’s was in many ways a refreshingly laid-back performance. At other times, he proved a real kitten on the keys, pecking away with a winsome dynamism in the opening movement and capturing the joie de vivre of the finale with a cheeky boogie-woogie swagger. Van Zweden ensured the balance was perfect throughout, phasing it all beautifully with minute attention to detail and some breath-takingly managed suspensions. The piano was always audible and the orchestral blend immaculate, thanks to the hall’s clean acoustic and some sharp ears on the podium.

Daniil Trifonov and the New York Philharmonic. Photo © Chris Lee

The orchestra had a real French sheen about them, though when they needed to the brass bent Ravel’s blue notes with just the right degree of vulgarity. Nancy Allen’s gossamer harp solo towards the end of the Allegramente was a real peach, alongside Robert Langevin and Sherry Sylar’s flute and oboe solos respectively in the radiant slow movement. And what a slow movement. Trifonov brought out the Satie in the lonely opening, rapt and transcendental with a capital ‘T’. A deliciously agile and aqueous account of Debussy’s Poissons d’Or as encore revealed a player with an enviable feel for French musical ‘Impressionism’.

That only left The Rite of Spring, for over 100 years a benchmark for any aspiring conductor and his or her orchestra. As the Ravel had already demonstrated, van Zweden is a fine colourist. His ear for sonics allowed his Stravinsky to mix French elegance with a blistering yet exact Russian fury, the hall’s acoustic pinning us to the walls with the violence of it all. The brass were especially uncompromising, at whom van Zweden had clearly looked encouragingly, as Richard Strauss might have said.

Strong on contrasts, there was plenty of the dance about this reading, woodwind shimmying winsomely in the Dance of the Adolescent Girls. There was much to seemingly hear anew as well. The weird muted trumpets – an unexpected nod to the Ravel – in the Mystical Circles of the Young Girls were magically ethereal and a creepy, sinuous quality to the Evocation of the Ancestors felt freshly minted.

Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic. Photo © Chris Lee

When it erupted, it certainly erupted. The Ritual of the Rival Tribes and final Sacrificial Dance elicited a visceral physical response (n.b. without the need for megaphones) in what was a thrilling conclusion to a distinguished debut. As he proved again in his paint-stripper Ride of the Valkyries encore, van Zweden isn’t going to short change New Yorkers when it comes to decibels. At the still, small heart of this concert however, in the detailed colours of his Rite and throughout the Ravel, the Philharmonic’s 26th Music Director demonstrated a thoughtful intelligence that promises good times ahead now that New York has finally met Jaap.

Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine