Yes, the New York Philharmonic began its concert on Saturday night with an OOMP—an obligatory opening modern piece. But it was a darn good OOMP, a commendable curtain-raiser. The piece is Fate Now Conquers, by Carlos Simon, an American born in 1986. It is almost raining Simon: last month, the San Diego Symphony played a rather long piece of his in Carnegie Hall. (I will discuss it in my forthcoming chronicle for the magazine.)
What does Simon mean by his title, about fate and conquest? We could get into it, but it matters little: this is a piece of music without words. The piece is “about” whatever you, the listener, think it’s about, or about nothing at all.
Fate Now Conquers is lively, propulsive, kaleidoscopic. There is a brief solo for cello, which the Philharmonic’s Carter Brey played suavely. The piece is ever interesting and a right length. Who could ask for anything more (to quote a song)?
As the audience applauded, the conductor held up the score, acknowledging the work. A gentlemanly, and collegial, act. In due course, the composer himself took the stage for a bow.
Who was the conductor? Stéphane Denève, the Frenchman who leads the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. He guest-conducted the New York Philharmonic about this time last season. (For my review, go here.) This was one of the best orchestral concerts of the entire New York music season.
After the curtain-raiser, it was the Beethoven Violin Concerto, whose soloist was Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, born in Copenhagen. I believe I first heard him in the 2010–11 season, and with this orchestra: he joined Sir Colin Davis for the Elgar concerto. (My review.) That was a memorable, and memorably good, performance.
The Beethoven concerto begins with timpani, which are important throughout. Handling them with skill was Markus Rhoten. In the early going, Szeps-Znaider did not have his best sound or best intonation. But later in the first movement, he demonstrated excellent trilling (outstanding for its evenness). In the cadenza, he was stylish and commanding. (Szeps-Znaider used Kreisler’s.) And he demonstrated a real piano, by which I mean that it was substantial—not wispy or disembodied—and carrying.
In his violin concerto, Beethoven assigns the bassoon an important role—and the Philharmonic’s Judith LeClair delivered, with musicality and agility.
The second movement—the Larghetto—was competent. Perfectly competent. So was the third movement, the Rondo. Is “perfectly competent” a putdown? If it is, it’s a complimentary one. Soloist, conductor, and orchestra did some wonderful things.
They chose—or someone chose—a ritard at the end. I like the ending a tempo. But judging from the performances I have heard over the last many years, I’m in a minority.
Maestro Denève took a seat near the wing to hear his soloist play an encore. Before playing, Szeps-Znaider offered some platitudes about music and troubled times. He then played Bach’s D-minor Sarabande, with competence.
After intermission came a symphony: the Symphony No. 3 of Saint-Saëns, a.k.a. the “Organ” Symphony. How you begin a piece is important: and Denève had the orchestra begin out of nowhere—ethereally. This was effective. Throughout the four movements (or two, depending on how you count), Denève followed the contours of the music: its rising and falling; its general arc. He did not seem to be interpreting; rather, he let the music be its natural self.
The “Organ” Symphony is a spectacular, you could say. But don’t forget: it’s also spectacular.
People like to snicker at Saint-Saëns: “The Swan,” Danse macabre, the Bacchanale (from Samson and Delilah), this symphony . . . Let ’em snicker. Saint-Saëns was a genius, and the “Organ” Symphony—plus many another piece from his pen—will last as long as there is music.