On Saturday night, Jeffrey Kahane conducted the New York Philharmonic, and served as piano soloist too. It has become a Philharmonic tradition: Kahane comes and presides over a Classical concert.
But aren’t they all classical? Isn’t the New York Philharmonic in the business of classical music? Yes, but I wrote “Classical,” with that big C. I mean the period in which Haydn and Mozart stood out.
On Saturday night, Kahane and the orchestra began with Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E flat, K. 482. Many times in these pages—on the site and in the print edition—I have inveighed against “play-conducting”: the practice of playing a concerto and conducting it at the same time. I will not repeat my argument to bored and weary readers.
Consider it a late Christmas present.
Nevertheless, I will impose a couple of words. The New York Philharmonic program booklets have the excellent habit of providing you with information about the world premiere of a work. And the Philharmonic premiere of that work. And the Philharmonic’s latest performance of that work.
The Philharmonic’s first performance of Mozart’s K. 482 was in 1925, with Mengelberg on the podium and Landowska at the piano (yes, the piano, not the harpsichord). Should Landowska have shoved the conductor off the podium, saying, “Don’t worry, Willem, I’ll handle everything”?
The Philharmonic’s most recent performance of K. 482 was in 2018, with Christoph Eschenbach on the podium and Till Fellner as soloist. Now, Eschenbach happens to be one of the greatest Mozart pianists of all time. Should he have shoved the pianist off the bench, saying, “Till, enough with your merry pranks. Leave the playing to me”?
Okay, I’m done now.
The Kahane-Philharmonic performance went fine, just fine. I think it would have gone better without play-conducting: with a full-time conductor, so to speak, and a full-time pianist. The pianist would have missed fewer notes, and made crisper turns. Also, a play-conductor “conducts” with his playing—tries to lead the orchestra through his playing—which warps the piano part. But, again, the concerto went fine.
A woodwind section has a lot to do in this piece, and the Philharmonic’s did it very well. As Robert Langevin, the principal flute, played, I thought of an opera that Mozart would write several years later: The Magic Flute. This concerto gives a little foretaste of that piece.
In bare and not-easy music, the French horns were stable. Indeed, they were stable all through the concert, gratifyingly and impressively so.
Kahane, that gifted fellow, has written his own cadenzas for K. 482. I would like to tell a story (which regular and longtime readers have heard before, but they won’t mind the repetition).
When I was young, I knew a man who once turned pages for Dame Myra Hess. (In the later years of her career, she never played from memory.) He was a piano student, and, before her recital, Dame Myra asked him what he was studying. He mentioned a Mozart concerto. She said, “What cadenzas are you using?” He gulped and said, “Well, I’ve written my own.” She said, “That’s wonderful. I’m not gifted that way.”
For the first movement of K. 482, Kahane has written a nifty cadenza—utterly Mozartean in spirit. A surprise comes when he incorporates timpani in his cadenza. (I hasten to say that Kahane himself did not play the timpani on Saturday night, leaving that chore to the timpanist.)
In the final movement, his cadenza is both thoughtful and playful—befitting and adorning the movement, as a cadenza should.
After intermission, Kahane conducted, not a Classical piece, but a Respighi piece—one with a Classical nature, however, you might say. This was the Trittico botticelliano, or Botticelli Triptych, a piece inspired by Spring, The Adoration of the Magi, and The Birth of Venus (cheekily known as Venus on the Half Shell). This work had its Philharmonic premiere in 1932, with the composer on the podium. It had not been performed by the orchestra since.
The piece has a very birdy beginning, putting me in mind of another Respighi piece: The Birds, of course. Kahane conducted with verve and flair. The orchestra was tight, and by that I do not mean stiff—I mean compact, accurate, and superb.
The second movement begins with a bassoon, and Judith LeClair sang admirably. Soon we have a woodwind choir, and the others sang admirably too.
This movement is on The Adoration of the Magi, recall. It incorporates the carol “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Also, there are doses of Orientalism, putting me in mind of “We Three Kings.”
Before leaving this movement, I want to mention the concertmaster, Frank Huang, who played tenderly and smartly.
The final movement, birthing Venus? Maestro Kahane built it beautifully. And the orchestra gave a fine example of powerful, unison string playing.
Their concert ended with a Haydn symphony: the “Miracle,” i.e., the Symphony No. 96 in D. According to legend, a chandelier fell during the premiere without injuring anybody. That must have been a Surprise.
Kahane and the Philharmonic delivered a first-class performance of the “Miracle.” I stopped reviewing, mentally. Everything was right: in phrasing, dynamics, attacks, tempi, articulation, sound (or sounds), etc.
Let me not scant the issue of sound: sound is not everything in orchestral playing, but it’s not nothing either.
I can’t help singling out the oboe, Sherry Sylar, who, in the Trio, was jaunty and fetching. She sounded like an Austrian farmwoman. And she had been a marvelous singer in the Respighi. Every time I turn around, this player is acting principal of the orchestra. I would have made her principal years ago, but don’t nobody ask me.
All night long, the players expressed great enthusiasm for Jeffrey Kahane: grinning at him, applauding him, insisting he take a solo bow (I don’t think he ever would). And he expressed great enthusiasm for them in return. What a happy relationship. And I think Kahane is a national treasure, whether the nation knows it or not.