Last night at the New York Philharmonic, the first half was all-American and the second half was Brahms. The first half consisted of Central Park in the Dark, by Ives, and The Wound-Dresser, by John Adams. The first piece was composed in 1906, the second in 1988.

By the way, if you had programmed something by Sebastian Currier, another contemporary American composer, instead of something by Adams, you would have had Currier & Ives. (Fair warning: I’m using this lame joke again, in an upcoming piece for the print magazine.)

Neither Central Park in the Dark nor even The Wound-Dresser is a new piece. But I thought of something that Mariss Jansons, the great Latvian conductor, told me in an interview last year. He said that he does not conduct anything he doesn’t like or love. I said, “What about new pieces?” He smiled and recalled his time at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. In Pittsburgh, he said, you had to program a new piece by an American composer every week. Otherwise, the critics would kill you.

Look, I’m sure that Jaap van Zweden, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, just loved, loved conducting his Ives and Adams last night. I’m sure he leapt out of bed to do it. I’m sure he could hardly sleep the night before. And yet, I wonder: Do you have to do this—do you have to punch an American ticket—in order to get to Brahms?

The Wound-Dresser is a Civil War piece, setting a poem of the same title by Walt Whitman. (Most of that poem, I should say.) The piece calls for a baritone, who last night was Matthias Goerne, the great German. I’m not sure I had ever heard him sing in English before. Never has German been better than out of his mouth. And English?

Some of the words came out a little funny: “hospital,” “cots,” “pacify.” The word “these” rhymed with “piece” rather than “peas.” Who can fathom English? Peccadillos aside—individual words aside—I could not really understand what Goerne was singing. I had to look at the words, which were projected on a screen above, as well as printed in our program booklets.

Ideally, The Wound-Dresser should be lulling, like many Adams pieces, and many works of that general school. It ought to transfix you.

Goerne deployed his astonishingly beautiful voice, of course, which includes an astonishingly beautiful head voice. He did a little barking, which was unexpected. He might have thought it went with the piece. On the whole, he did not seem quite comfortable with the idiom. He never seemed to relax into it. He was often labored. The same things can be said of Van Zweden and the orchestra.

Ideally, The Wound-Dresser should be lulling, like many Adams pieces, and many works of that general school. It ought to transfix you. I believe this effect was absent from last night’s performance.

But I must report, as your faithful correspondent, that the composer himself, taking bows afterward, seemed pleased. Also, The Wound-Dresser is an intelligent and beautiful piece.

The Brahms on the second half of the program was the First—Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 in C minor. You can handle the historic opening a couple of different ways. You can make it pounding, inevitable, and dramatic. Or you can make it beautiful and Romantic. Van Zweden was somewhere in between, tending toward the second. This opening was very, very well handled.

In the first movement, the orchestra was extraordinarily accurate—even the pizzicatos. Is this legal?

In the first movement, the orchestra was extraordinarily accurate—even the pizzicatos. Is this legal?

To no one’s surprise, Van Zweden was smart, musical, and commanding. Brahms is known as “the Classical Romantic.” Van Zweden reflected this duality in his conducting. Everything was right about this first movement—except sound. Missing was that warmth of sound, a Brahmsian sound. Maybe Van Zweden will develop this as his tenure, just begun, continues.

The lack of warmth was keenly felt at the beginning of the second movement. Later on, however, Anthony McGill piped up on his clarinet, satisfyingly. The French horn was steady and strong, but not especially pliant or musical. At the end of the movement, the violin was a little low—a little south of the pitch—and there was some ugly blurting in the winds.

(Speaking of the violin: He has a prominent solo part in The Wound-Dresser, and he played it outstandingly.)

Let’s jump to Brahms’s Finale. The horn now did himself proud. On the flute, Robert Langevin sang superbly. There was a warm brass choir—yes, warm. And when Van Zweden got to that C-major hymn, he was magnificent. He chose just the right tempo (not easy). And he had the right blend of breathability and majesty.

What about the final pages of the symphony? I think they should be unbearably exciting. I’m afraid they were all too bearable. In my view, the maestro was too measured, too polite. Brahms did not bring home the thrill he should. I left disappointed.

You might say that I am picking on Van Zweden, but I disagree: If you know Jaap, and you know Brahms—you know what they can do.

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