It is a tried-and-true program for an orchestra: overture, concerto, symphony. There are many other ways to do an orchestra concert. But overture-concerto-symphony is common for a reason: it has been tried, and it is true.

The New York Philharmonic played such a program on Thursday night. On the podium was Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Another day, another Finn? Yes. Finland produces more conductors than East Africa does marathoners.

Rouvali conducted the Philharmonic in the 2019–20 season. Here is a snippet of my review:

Rouvali has great big bushy hair—and interesting hair is an asset to a conductor (although men such as Solti have done all right with none). Rouvali has a thin, lithe body, and he is enjoyable to watch on the podium: balletic.

The overture beginning Thursday night’s concert was that to Rossini’s Semiramide. It had last been played by the Philharmonic in 2007, under Riccardo Muti. A lot of us knew the overture before we knew the opera. Tullio Serafin recorded an LP of Rossini overtures. It was very popular, and very good. In the mid-1960s, along came Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, et al., with a recording of Semiramide, complete.

The overture begins with wonderful suspense. The opening measures are “anticipatory,” I like to say. Something’s coming (to quote a song from West Side Story). Maestro Rouvali handled these opening measures ably.

Then the horn section did its choir very well—unflubbingly. Were these really the New York Philharmonic horns? In due course, the strings contributed neat, snaky pizzicatos.

Overall, this was a good reading of the Semiramide overture. But, Oliver-like, I wanted more: more precision, more tautness, more stylishness—more of an Italian sparkle.

The concerto following the overture was a brand-new one: the Piano Concerto No. 3 by Magnus Lindberg, the Finnish composer who was the Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence from 2009 to 2012. The soloist in the concerto was Yuja Wang, the Chinese star. I will discuss this new piece in a future “New York chronicle” for the magazine.

But readers would be disappointed if I did not offer a sartorial note, concerning Ms. Wang. She wore a slinky light-blue dress, shoulderless. She looked smashing in it, needless to say. For anyone else, this dress would have been racy. For Yuja, it was practically a burqa.

And the symphony after the concerto? It was a Beethoven symphony: No. 2 in D major, Op. 36. It is not frequently played, for a Beethoven symphony. Hearing it was like seeing an old friend—and remembering how much you loved that friend.

When it comes to the early Beethoven symphonies—and Beethoven symphonies in general—I think of what Robert Graves said—something like, “The thing about Shakespeare is, he really is good.”

Santtu-Matias Rouvali is a pleasure to watch, as I said in that review three years ago. He is poised, loose, relaxed—very expressive with his hands and arms. Sitting in David Geffen Hall, I could not help thinking, “He would have a good golf swing.”

The first movement of the Beethoven hit the mark. It was smart, accurate, and spirited. It would prove the best movement of the performance.

In the second movement, Larghetto, Anthony McGill did some heartfelt playing. He is the principal clarinet. Robert Langevin made delightful sounds. He is the principal flute. The horns sounded more like horns than they had in the Rossini. That poor instrument is born to flub. Playing it is often thankless.

The Scherzo—the third movement—was solid. The finale started a bit of a mess but righted itself, pretty much.

Not every performance is a winner. Some are bad. Some are “no better than all right” (to quote another West Side Story song). The Rouvali–Philharmonic performance was a little better than all right. But it never really found its groove. This concert will be repeated a final time on Tuesday night. I bet it will be good.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.