Last night at the New York Philharmonic, there were red bowties and pretty dresses. It looked like New Year’s Eve. What was the deal? The Philharmonic was staging a gala, on the second day of December—like an Opening Night gala. Opening Night was back in October. But as two Philharmonic board members explained, speaking to the audience last night, the orchestra wanted to be sure that “everything was all right”—pandemic-wise, I think—before holding a gala.
The program consisted of crowd-pleasers, or favorites. On the podium was the Philharmonic’s music director, Jaap van Zweden. The curtain-raiser was a curtain-raiser, i.e., the overture to Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. How do you want this overture to go? You want it to be taut, springy, and delightsome. It was, pretty much.
Often, you hear this overture coming from a pit, in a big opera house. Last night, we heard it from the stage of Alice Tully Hall, which is a chamber hall, more or less. What an advantage, for the listener.
The program continued with a Classical symphony, namely Prokofiev’s: his Symphony No. 1 in D, nicknamed the “Classical.” Such an ingenious piece. How do you want it to go? Well, like the Figaro overture, to be honest. You want the symphony taut, springy, and delightsome. And bracing. Which it was.
Afterward, as the audience applauded, the woman behind me said to her seatmate, “He’s leaving.” “What?” said the other person. “He’s leaving,” she repeated. She was referring to Jaap van Zweden, who is leaving the Philharmonic after the 2023–24 season. He will have had a very short tenure: six years. A crying shame.
Itzhak Perlman took the stage, to play a concerto with the orchestra: Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor. When did Perlman first learn this concerto? When he was ten? (He appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show when he was thirteen, in 1958.) When did Van Zweden—also a violinist—first learn it? Also ten?
Perlman is now in his mid-seventies. I once said to a famous violinist in an interview—I think he was about forty at the time—“Violin-playing is a young man’s game, isn’t it?” The violinist denied it and mildly took offense. He might have been doing so because our interview was in front of an audience. I wonder what he would have said in private. I heard Milstein when I was a kid, and he was about the age Perlman is now. I remember him as masterly.
So is Perlman, needless to say. I will not really review him. He, like Milstein, is one of the greatest violinists who ever lived. He did some Perlmanesque things last night. It is always a pleasure and a privilege to see him. Certainly the audience thought so, rising to its feet the moment he finished.
Let me give you an aside: For the opening two pieces, no one onstage had a mask on (that I noticed). For the Bruch, everyone did (except for the wind players). That included the soloist and the conductor. It must have been a courtesy—or a requirement, or both—for Perlman.
Van Zweden concluded the program—the printed program—with Strauss the Younger’s immortal waltz, On the Beautiful Blue Danube. He was stylish—Van Zweden, I mean, though Strauss is too, of course. I said “the printed program” because there was an encore: Brahms’s Hungarian Dance in G minor.
“Ah, but there are two—two famous ones—in that key!” you say. You are a sharpie. Yes, this was the Hungarian Dance No. 5.
I have a memory of Lorin Maazel. He, too, conducted this piece as an encore with the Philharmonic. After he did something delicious with rhythm, a woman in the audience giggled with glee. Still conducting, Maazel turned around toward the audience, with a bemused smile.