The New York Philharmonic played an unusual program. First, it had four pieces on it. Rarely these days does an orchestra play as many as four. Three is probably standard—and that includes the tried-and-true format of overture, concerto, symphony. (A format that has never been improved on, frankly.) You frequently encounter two pieces as well—one before intermission, one after. Also, one piece: a Bruckner or Mahler symphony, say, or a requiem. But four or more pieces is unusual. There are a number of shorter pieces in the repertoire that get short shrift, because they don’t quite fit. Also, they may be judged less serious (and that judgment may be off).

There was something else unusual about that Philharmonic program: all four pieces were “classics.” They were all “mainstream,” even “canonical.” You could even call them “favorites.” Is that legal, to play such a program? In any event, the Philharmonic did, and well.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducts the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on December 6, 2023. Photo: Brandon Patoc.

Conducting this program was Andrés Orozco-Estrada, from Colombia. We are accustomed to conductors from Venezuela—most prominent among them Gustavo Dudamel, who is the New York Philharmonic’s music director–elect. But this one comes from the country to the west. In 1997, when he was about twenty, Orozco-Estrada went to Vienna, to study. He has lived in Austria ever since. But he has the jet-setting career of a conductor. He is best known for his tenure in Houston, from 2014 to 2022.

The first line of his bio reads, “Energy, elegance, and spirit—that is what particularly distinguishes conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada as a musician.” As I have noted many times, musicians’ bios are not so much bios as publicists’ puff. But that line about Orozco-Estrada is not untrue. He is a very musical person, with impressive physicality. He expresses, physically, what he wants from an orchestra—and does so in an exceptionally graceful and natural way.

This program began with Tchaikovsky: his Romeo and Juliet Overture–Fantasy. It is one of the composer’s very best pieces. I have often said that if I could introduce a person to Tchaikovsky with just one piece, it would be Romeo and Juliet. It encapsulates him: the Classicism, the Romanticism, the discipline, the freedom. It is a taut, breathing, perfect composition. Furthermore, it tells the story of Romeo and Juliet.

Would I think this if the title did not steer me that way? No. But that is the nature of all music without words. And once you know that Tchaikovsky intends Romeo and Juliet—that’s what you hear: that play, that story.

The Philharmonic’s performance began with a clean woodwind choir—a blessed way to begin. Indeed, the entire reading was accurate, even the pizzicatos. Crucially, Orozco-Estrada did not give away too much in the early going. He let the story, the music, build. Also crucially, he was not too elegant, too beautiful. He was robust, as the music demands. A la-di-da quality is fatal to this piece, and to Tchaikovsky in general.

I have a minor complaint. In my view, much more should be made of the low strings in the final pages—the strings that counter the melody higher up. This is a genius touch of Tchaikovsky (another one). In any case, we heard a first-rate performance, with the orchestra playing as if for dear life. As if it mattered.

Shakespeare’s play has given birth to various works of music: Prokofiev’s ballet (a masterpiece of masterpieces); Bernstein’s West Side Story (I am tempted to say the same); Gounod’s opera (creditable). Would Shakespeare be surprised? I am thinking not.

The second piece on the Philharmonic’s program was a Haydn cello concerto: the first one, in C major. Haydn wrote it in the 1760s, then it had a long rest, until it was discovered in 1961. The Philharmonic’s soloist was a young Frenchman, Edgar Moreau, who will turn thirty this year.

Edgar Moreau, soloist, with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on December 6, 2023. Photo: Brandon Patoc.

In the first movement, he played with a dark, rich tone. I prefer a brighter tone in this music. But dark and rich, as a rule, is desirable. M. Moreau was free with portamentos (not too much so). And his passagework was passable. I have a feeling he can articulate this music better. The second movement, Adagio, was a real arioso. And the Finale had its scampering joy, from all concerned: cellist and orchestra.

During the concerto, I could not help thinking about Carter Brey, the principal cello in the orchestra. There he was, leading the section as usual. He has been a member of the Philharmonic since 1996. But he has also enjoyed a distinguished solo career. Indeed, he was the soloist in this concerto a few seasons ago, when the Philharmonic programmed it.

What’s it like, in his shoes? What’s it like for a Carter Brey to sit in the orchestra as someone else plays the solo part? Well, I can report this: once the concerto was over, Mr. Brey applauded young Moreau enthusiastically.

The whole audience applauded enthusiastically as well. More than that, they gave Moreau a standing ovation. This is practically de rigueur for a concerto soloist. A thought occurred to me: The Tchaikovsky overture–fantasy was much better played. And no one stood for that. (This is not to begrudge Moreau his ovation. It is simply a note on concert life.)

Our soloist did the expected thing, and a good and right thing: he played Bach’s C-major sarabande for an encore. A Bach sarabande is a natural encore after a cello concerto (or a violin concerto). And the concerto had been in C major. So . . . a no-brainer, if you will. And Edgar Moreau played his Bach with balance and poise.

The two pieces after intermission were two show-stoppers: beginning with the suite from Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin. The Miraculous Mandarin is a ballet, or, more precisely, a pantomime ballet. Its music is brilliant and zany. From Maestro Orozco-Estrada and the Philharmonic, the suite was colorful and defined. The musicians caught the proper “contrasts,” I thought. There is a Bartók word (the title of his piece for clarinet, violin, and piano, commissioned by Benny Goodman: Contrasts). Over the years, the New York Philharmonic has been known as a bright, sassy, virtuosic orchestra—maybe a bit hard. They were admirably themselves in the Bartók. What we heard from the stage was polished savagery.

That final show-stopper was Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No. 1. I say “No. 1” as a formality. Enescu wrote a second Romanian Rhapsody, but when people say “Romanian Rhapsody,” they mean No. 1—same as they mean Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 when they say “the Bruch Concerto” (he wrote two other violin concertos).

Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducts the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on December 6, 2023. Photo: Brandon Patoc.

In the famous Rhapsody, calibration is key. No one, in my experience, calibrated this piece like Sergiu Celibidache, the late Romanian conductor. The build-up—the arc of the piece—was seductive and ultimately thrilling. Orozco-Estrada did a good job of calibration as well, though the piece sounded under-rehearsed. Toward the end—with about a minute to go—there is a kind of false ending. A sudden, longish rest. Some in the audience applauded during this rest. When the music resumed, Orozco-Estrada turned around smiling, as if to say, “Fooled ya, huh?” A winning personality and musician, Andrés Orozco-Estrada.

The Met Orchestra Chamber Ensemble played a concert in Weill Recital Hall. On its program were (a whopping) five pieces. The first three were by living composers—and the first of those pieces was LIgNEouS 1, for marimba and string quartet. “Ligneous,” as you know, means “of or resembling wood.” What about those capital letters? That is another matter, which need not detain us. The piece certainly involves, or requires, a lot of wood: the two violins, the viola, the cello, and—woodiest of all—the marimba.

It was a pleasure to see a marimbist at work up close—two mallets in each hand. On this evening, he was Gregory Zuber, the principal percussionist in the orchestra (the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra).

The Met Orchestra Chamber Ensemble performing in Weill Recital Hall on December 11, 2023. Photo: © Jennifer Taylor.

The composer of this piece is a percussionist, too: Andy Akiho, who is from South Carolina. He has a special interest in Caribbean music. LIgNEouS 1 is a little jazzy, and a little minimalistic. It is squiggly, squirmy, and scratchy. Discreet alterations of rhythm help hold the attention.

James Lee III is a composer from Michigan. He earned three degrees at the University of Michigan, studying with, among others, William Bolcom. In 2018, he wrote a clarinet quintet, which has been recorded by Anthony McGill and the Pacifica Quartet. (McGill was once the principal clarinet of the Met orchestra. Since 2014, he has been the principal of the New York Philharmonic.) In Weill Recital Hall, we heard two movements of the quintet, including one with the heading “Awashoha.” The composer has explained that this is a Choctaw word meaning “to play somewhere.”

“Awashoha”—the movement—is very pleasant and very American. It is lively, smooth, and catchy. “Catchy” can seem a negative word (like “pleasant”). But catchy is often welcome.

The Met Orchestra Chamber Ensemble performing in Weill Recital Hall on December 11, 2023. Photo: © Jennifer Taylor.

Serving as the clarinetist was Anton Rist, the Met’s current principal. He made a warm, beautiful, and—may I say—woody sound. Such a clarinet might be at home in one of Andy Akiho’s ligneous pieces.

Justinian Tamusuza is not an American but a Ugandan—though he earned his doctorate at Northwestern University. In 1988, he wrote a string quartet, titled Mu KKubo Ery’Omusaalaba, which is to say, “On the Way of the Cross.” We heard one movement from it. The music is—believe it or not—Coplandesque. Folk-like, Appalachian, twangy. However you hear it, this is music that goes down easy.

The four string players were joined by a dancer, performing around and amidst them. I thought of a program that Jessye Norman, the late and great singer, once put on with Bill T. Jones, the dancer–choreographer: How! Do! You! Do! The dancer in Weill Recital Hall was Quamaine “Virtuoso” Daniy’Els. His bio describes him as “a Brooklyn-based master of FlexN, with styles that include gliding, get glow, bone breaking, and connecting.”

Quamaine Daniy’Els (center) and the Met Orchestra Chamber Ensemble performing in Weill Recital Hall on December 11, 2023. Photo: © Jennifer Taylor.

Mr. Daniy’Els did, I presume, all of that, as the string quartet played Tamusuza’s music. You could not take your eyes off him. I decided, at one point, that I would listen to the music and not be distracted by the dancing—impossible. Was the music enhanced by the dancing? I would say no. Then again, there is nothing wrong with a dance performance qua dance performance—some dancing thrown into a concert, variety being the spice of life and all.

After intermission, we heard a “classic”: the Chanson perpétuelle of Ernest Chausson. This song is often heard with orchestra. There is a version for piano quintet (which of course we heard in this chamber concert). Personally, I like the smaller scale: its texture. Our soloist was a bona fide opera star, and star of song, Isabel Leonard, the American mezzo. She conveyed the cool–hot nature—you might prefer to say the French nature—of the song.

To end this program was a piano quintet—a piano quintet without voice. It was the Piano Quintet in F-sharp minor, Op. 67, by Amy Beach (composed in 1907). That is an interesting, and uncommon, key, F-sharp minor. Haydn wrote a symphony in it—No. 45, the “Farewell.” (Not to worry: Haydn had about sixty more symphonies to go.) Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music director of the Met, was to have been the pianist on this occasion. But he withdrew, in order to attend the Los Angeles premiere of Maestro, the biopic about Leonard Bernstein, in which he had a hand. He was replaced by one of his assistant conductors, Bryan Wagorn, a Canadian (like Nézet-Séguin himself, as it happens).

In recent years, presenting organizations have made an effort to program works by female composers. We have heard a fair amount of Beach, which is fine by me. But if you are interested in dusting off neglected music—if you are interested in resurrecting worthy music—there is a lot of dusting, and a lot of resurrecting, you could do. Take piano quintets alone, by American composers, alone. Amy Beach’s fellow Bostonian, George Whitefield Chadwick, wrote one. So did another Bostonian (born in Maine), Walter Piston. So did Roy Harris, and Vincent Persichetti, and Ernst Bacon. And Leo Ornstein . . .

Have you ever heard any of those piano quintets? Will you?

Daniil Trifonov did what he often does: play a recital in Carnegie Hall. There was overflow seating—stage seating—as expected. A Trifonov recital is an Event. His stage manner is largely unchanging. He comes out, unsmiling, bows quickly, and starts. He concentrates intensely. He is in his own private Idaho. He seems oblivious to everything around him. Then he gets up, unsmiling, bows quickly, and exits. In this (as in other things), he is like another Soviet-born pianist, Grigory Sokolov.

Sokolov was born in 1950, a generation or two before Trifonov. Trifonov was born in the Soviet Union’s last year, 1991. He will turn thirty-three in March.

The older pianist has been known to begin a recital with Rameau. So did the younger pianist, in his most recent Carnegie Hall recital. He played a suite in A minor. He was soft and inward—too much so, I thought. “Sing out, Louise,” goes a famous line from Broadway. Trifonov then played Mozart: the Sonata in F major, K. 332. In this, he was lyrical, crisp, limpid, fleet. His playing was free and imaginative, but always within Mozartean bounds. Third on the program was Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses. In parts of this work, I like a fatter, richer tone than Trifonov gave. He tended to be on the thin side. But, oh, what he brought. He was very smart, very musical. Nimble, cat-like. Seamless, fast, accurate. His virtuosity bordered on the demonic. I wrote in my notes the initials omg.

On the second half of the program, there was one work, and not just any work—a Beethoven sonata, and not just any Beethoven sonata: No. 29 in B flat, the “Hammerklavier.” Trifonov, as usual, was in his own world, and Beethoven’s. At times he seemed practically improvisatory. I could report on the playing page by page, but let me say merely this: most pianists survive this piece, rather than play it. They wrestle with it, struggle with it, rather than play it. They scale Everest. Daniil Trifonov played the work with something like ease, pouring all of his efforts—if efforts they were—into pure musical expression.

I would like to relate a memory. The year 2011 was a “Liszt year,” the bicentennial of that composer’s birth. In Carnegie Hall, Evgeny Kissin played an all-Liszt recital. Many of us had been listening to Kissin since 1984, when he was twelve. I left the hall that night, in 2011, thinking, “Now he is a great pianist. That’s what he has become: a great pianist.”

Daniil Trifonov has always been an impressive pianist, obviously—lavishly talented. But it was on this recent night, as I was leaving the hall, that I thought: “He is not just a good pianist, or a dazzling pianist, but a great one.” Perhaps I am late to this judgment. Perhaps I am early, premature. In any case, there it is.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 6, on page 58
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