Guest-conducting the New York Philharmonic on Thursday night was Paavo Järvi. I used to think of him as Neeme’s son (“Neeme” being Neeme Järvi, the eminent Estonian conductor, a man whom I grew up listening to). Eventually, however, he became simply “Paavo” to me. One name, like Cher.
On Thursday night, I was especially interested to hear the last work on the program, the Suite No. 2 from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. Why? Järvi (Paavo, I mean) is one of our better conductors of Classical music—music from the Classical period. He led one of the best-conducted Don Giovannis I have ever heard. And he has led some of the most bristling Beethoven symphonies I have ever heard. How would he handle French Impressionism?
Before the Ravel, however, we had other music, starting with the Dvorak Cello Concerto. The soloist was Gautier Capuçon, the French cellist—although his bio puts it differently. The bio begins, “Gautier Capuçon is a 21st-century ambassador for the cello.” What the hell does that mean? It means that PR-writers write the bios, to varying degrees of absurdity.
When the orchestra began the concerto, they were not together. Neither were they together on following entrances. I wondered, “Did the orchestra rehearse other music on the program and not this?” Yet they settled down and settled in. The French horns were none too pretty, but thankfully correct.
When Capuçon entered, he was arresting, if out of tune. He made a handsome, burnished sound. He played the first movement with respect and dignity. He was sufficiently Romantic, but tasteful, or disciplined.
Let me note that, at the end of the first movement, there was no applause. Audiences almost always applaud at the end of this movement. It’s practically unnatural not to. In this case, I don’t think the Philharmonic audience was observing concert decorum. I think they were not driven to applause by the music-making.
In the middle movement, Capuçon made a warm and buzzy sound—a very good sound. And this movement was well played, by all parties. Still, there was a hint of the routine about it.
At the beginning of the rondo, Capuçon chose some interesting phrasing: more detached than one usually hears. This was effective. The coda did not go well. Soloist and orchestra were out of coordination, and the soloist’s rubato was ill judged. Also, the orchestra’s pizzicatos were terrible.
But this movement, like the rest of the concerto, was mainly well played. Honorably played. And yet, there was that air of routine about it.
Capuçon played an encore, a little Prokofiev march for unaccompanied cello. It was clock-like, screwy, and beautifully timed. First-rate (and un-routine).
I often wonder how the cellists in an orchestra feel when someone is playing the Dvorak concerto—the cello concerto. Proud? Satisfied? Indifferent? Envious?
I would like to offer three footnotes, or asides, before moving on. (1) Gautier Capuçon has an older brother, Renaud, who is a noted violinist. Early on in their careers, they did a fair amount of playing together, which was a natural from a PR point of view. (2) Gautier has great hair, matinée-idol hair. That can’t hurt a career, can it? (3) I often wonder how the cellists in an orchestra feel when someone is playing the Dvorak concerto—the cello concerto. Proud? Satisfied? Indifferent? Envious? What’s it like to play orchestra parts when someone else is playing the part? You can bet that each member of the New York Philharmonic’s cello section has soloed in that concerto, somewhere.
The second half of Thursday night’s program had two works on it. Coming before the Ravel was a Sibelius tone poem, Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island. This is a Finnish tale, and Paavo Järvi grew up in these parts, or within shouting distance: Estonia. That is neither here nor there, when it comes to conducting or interpretation. It’s just another footnote, really, or aside.
In the Sibelius, the Philharmonic did not make a beautiful sound or a rich sound. Neither did it offer many colors. From Järvi, the piece was tight and no-nonsense—Classical, if you like—but not bull-like. His was a very intelligent reading. Yet so much depends on sound, when it comes to music like this.
Whose fault was the sound in this instance? The players’? The conductor’s? The hall’s? Not the hall’s, though people like to pick on David Geffen (formerly Avery Fisher). There has been plenty of great orchestral sound in this hall, from many orchestras. We will leave my question for another day (in part because I’m unsure of the answer).
Now to Daphnis and Chloe, or its Suite No. 2. The suite began with a wonderful liquid feeling. The woodwinds showed off (as they would throughout). The section has never been more impressive, in my memory. The music had the right mist—a dawn mist—lifting. Järvi showed imagination in his conducting. The climactic sunrise was not as warm as you would like, but it sufficed.
More on the woodwinds: It was Robert Langevin’s job to beguile. He is the principal flute—and beguile he did. It was also nice to hear another kind of flute, from another player. I’m speaking of the alto flute. It provides an unusual, and unusually beautiful, sound.
At various points in this suite, I would have liked more “French” a “wash.” And a lighter, more delicate touch. And a greater range of dynamics. For instance, one build-up would have been better off starting softer. But Järvi had his own conception, and say this for his Daphnis: it was tight as a drum. I mean this in a good way, of course. No waywardness—nothing loosey-goosey—was allowed in this suite.
It was a good performance, with much to commend. But, honestly, this music can be many times more exciting.
One more footnote, please—a proper footnote, at the bottom of this post: Deborah Borda is today the executive director of the New York Philharmonic. Once upon a time, she was the executive director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, in my home state. And it was she who hired Neeme Järvi. That was a feather in the cap of all of us Michiganders.