Review: A Philharmonic Contender Returns to the Podium

A changing of the guard on the world’s great orchestral podiums was in the air on Friday. Daniel Barenboim, 80, the longtime music director of the Berlin State Opera, had just announced he would step down at the end of the month because of his declining health.

A potential generational shift was looming at the New York Philharmonic, too. The evening before, Santtu-Matias Rouvali, 37, had conducted that ensemble with crisply elfin spirit as one of the leading candidates to take over when Jaap van Zweden, 62, leaves at the end of next season.

Rouvali faces steep competition — not least from Gustavo Dudamel, 41, who is widely considered the favorite for the position and who arrives in New York this spring for Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, a classic music director showcase.

But it is no accident that Rouvali is the only Philharmonic guest conductor this season to get two weeks of concerts. After the current program of works by Rossini, Magnus Lindberg and Beethoven, he leads music by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Prokofiev and — like the Mahler, a prime assignment — Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” starting next Thursday.

It is an added sign of trust in and respect for Rouvali, the principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, that each of those programs includes a new work co-commissioned by the Philharmonic: Thorvaldsdottir’s “Catamorphosis” and Lindberg’s Piano Concerto No. 3 — bless him for being one of the few contemporary composers who favor plain, simple concerto titles — with the calmly formidable Yuja Wang as soloist.

Yuja Wang, front, was the soloist in Magnus Lindberg’s Piano Concerto No. 3.Credit…Chris Lee

On Thursday at David Geffen Hall, Rouvali, too, was a calm and lucid guide through the piece — which came off, however, as billowy and somewhat baggy. The score’s meter markings are precisely gauged for shifts of pulse that don’t come across audibly as slow-fast contrasts of tempo; this may be why Lindberg has cheekily described the work as a concerto in three concertos, rather than three movements.

But while that is an impressive technical achievement, the whole thing ends up registering for the listener as a bit homogeneous, a roughly half-hour foray into richly chromatic nostalgia, swaths of it reminiscent of golden-age film music à la Korngold. (A modernist sheen over a late-Romantic spirit has become a trademark Lindberg move.) Like the Groundhog Day spectacle of votes for a House speaker this week, the performance gave the sense of hearing the same concerto again and again.

If this repetitiveness yielded little urgency, the piece wasn’t exactly sluggish, either. Moment by moment, passage by passage, the music doesn’t feel heavy. Lindberg keeps the orchestra airy, often adding complexity by dividing the strings into ever-ampler harmonies rather than using denser instrumentation or greater volume. And the daunting solo part emerges — particularly in Wang’s cool hands — as quicksilver and subtle, integrated into the general textures and restrained even in the fevered portions of the cadenza near the end of the first movement.

Lindberg is never less than artful, as in how that cadenza seems to silkily melt out of softly plush strings, which just as quietly and cleverly rejoin the pianist a minute or so later. The shadows at the start of the second movement organically grow into an expansive, grave grandeur reminiscent of Debussy’s “La Mer,” with passages of candied glockenspiel woven beautifully into the golden wire of a tiny group of violins. The third movement has bits of sumptuous playfulness, punctuated by yelps of brass.

But overall the work’s impact is muted and breezy, which is striking given the broad, Rachmaninoff-esque sweep of Lindberg’s musical gestures.

Rouvali, one of a full lineup of conductors accompanying Wang in the coming months as she tours with the work, which premiered in San Francisco in October, matches her clean, objective style. There is a conscientiousness to Rouvali that can tip into squareness, as I felt when he led the Philharmonic in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony a year ago. And Rossini’s “Semiramide” Overture on Thursday lacked the steadily accumulating propulsion, even through lyrical passages, that is the piece’s reason for being; the soufflé never really rose.

But in Beethoven’s Second Symphony — a classic that is still somehow underrated — he was superb, with his deliberate, even careful conducting yielding a graceful, stylish interpretation. I have rarely been more clearly yet delicately aware of Beethoven’s most visionary passages here: the orchestra mistily reconstituting itself near the end of the first movement, the amorphous clouds of harmonies in the finale.

Under Rouvali, the second movement was intimate and sober, but it gradually relaxed, even to a charming daintiness; the third, never rushing the eager rhythms, reached elegance. This conductor doesn’t do breathlessness, and he could probably do with a little more liveliness. But when he avoids plainness, his judiciousness can seem very like maturity.

New York Philharmonic

This program repeats through Tuesday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan;

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