Santtu-Matias Rouvali is back for another week of conducting the New York Philharmonic. He is a grand old man of Finnish conducting. When I say “grand old man,” I mean he is not yet forty. There are plenty of Finns in the generation below him. Finland, that cold country, is a hothouse of conductors.
On the Philharmonic’s program last night was a concerto—a violin concerto, the second of Prokofiev. The soloist was Nemanja Radulović, born a few weeks before Rouvali in 1985. Radulović is a native of Niš, Serbia, which is to say, he started out as a “Yugoslavian.”
Before I get to the musical: Radulović was dressed like a rock star last night. He wore an all-black ensemble, which included flared pants. He has wild hair, and tons of it. At the top is a man bun. Maestro Rouvali is no slouch in the hair department himself. Next to his violinist, however, he might as well have been sporting a crewcut.
Radulović gave a peculiar reading of the Prokofiev Second. This is not to say it was bad, or wrong. (You might argue for wrongish.) But it was peculiar, unusual.
In the first movement, Radulović tended to be subdued and austere. I admired his willingness to play softly. Yet there is some Romeo and Juliet, and Cinderella, in this music. (I have named Prokofiev’s two greatest ballet scores.) There is sweetness, rhapsody, and rapture. Radulović seemed to be emphasizing the “modernist” side of the music.
The second movement, Andante assai, is one of the most beloved things in the entire violin-concerto repertoire. Prokofiev does his trick—a great trick—of putting a staccato accompaniment under a slinky legato melody. Radulović did not really sing out. He was kind of mezza-voce—I’m tempted to say wan. It was a choice. I should say, too, that there was also heart in Radulović’s playing (if a quiet, inward kind of heart).
As for the final movement—Allegro, ben marcato—it was slower than one normally hears it, which was fine. It was also not so ben marcato. I would have liked more definition, more slancio, more bite. Moreover, the violinist’s sound tended to be scratchy and diffuse, where I would have liked more focus, at least.
But these were his choices—he obviously has the ability, technical and musical, to do with his instrument what he wants—and the crowd loved it, standing and roaring.
He played an encore: a treatment of the famous Paganini caprice in A minor—“arr. Sedler/Radulović,” I am told. Here, Radulović was all style and virtuosity. The playing was dazzling—also very smart, musically. Members of the orchestra listened attentively and appreciatively. One violinist had a marveling smile on her face, the whole time. That is high praise.
After intermission, Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducted a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. One of the neat things about New York Philharmonic program booklets is that they tell you when a piece was first performed, and by whom. They also tell you about the first performance by the Philharmonic. And the most recent.
The Philharmonic first performed The Rite of Spring in 1925. Do you know who the conductor was? Wilhelm Furtwängler. Not a guy you would expect in Stravinsky, right?
As he conducted last night, Rouvali did something akin to the “Furtwängler flutter.” In at least two instances, he fluttered his left hand, when indicating, or cuing, a trill. I doubt that anyone in the conducting business today has hands more expressive than Rouvali’s.
You have heard more primitive, rawer readings of The Rite of Spring. You have heard more animalistic readings, and certainly more manic ones. Rouvali’s was intelligent and musical. Each part in the orchestra was clear. The music was never hurried. Rouvali did no showing off—and this is a piece in which the temptation for a conductor to show off is great.
Last night’s reading was boring, right? No, on the contrary: it was riveting. The Rite of Spring does not have to be nuts to be riveting. The woodwinds had the right sass and piquancy. The brass were powerful without being offensive. Same with the percussion. Each bang or whack was shrewdly calibrated.
Often, the music swung, jazzily. (How Stravinsky loved jazz, which was budding.) The music was dance-like—as a ballet score should be. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard so much elegance in The Rite of Spring. Elegance is not necessarily a foe of excitement.
Rouvali gave me what I want out of The Rite of Spring, and he did it without breaking a sweat. Without notable exertion or exhortation. Extraordinary.
The Rite of Spring begins with a bassoon, and the principal in the Philharmonic is Judith LeClair—has been since 1981, when she was twenty-three. She looks the same, decade after decade. (Reminds me of Stanley Drucker, the late clarinetist. Will she stay in the orchestra sixty years, as he did?) She also plays the same, i.e., well. When The Rite of Spring was over, as the audience was applauding, Rouvali walked into the middle of the orchestra to congratulate LeClair and ask her to stand. A lovely gesture.
The concert began with a new piece, or new enough: it premiered two years ago, in Berlin. The composer is Anna Thorvaldsdottir—Icelandic, as her name tells you—and the piece is Catamorphosis. I will discuss it in a forthcoming chronicle for the print magazine.