French conductor Ludovic Morlot made his unscheduled, but auspicious, New York Philharmonic debut, filling in for the ailing Christoph von Dohnányi.
The 32-year-old Morlot has been assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 2004 when James Levine became its Music Director, but his close association with that orchestra began when he was the Seiji Ozawa Fellowship Conductor at Tanglewood in 2001. He recently made his Chicago Symphony debut and will lead a New York Philharmonic Young Peoples Concert in May. Morlots training as a conductor included studying under Sir Colin Davis at the Royal Academy of Music from which he received a masters degree in conducting in 2000, following which he was the Norman Del Mar Junior Fellow in Conducting at the Royal College of Music. Among the conductors he has served as assistant are Mark Wigglesworth, Sir Colin Davis, Seiji Ozawa, André Previn, Rafael Frübeck de Burgos and David Robertson.
The programme afforded Morlot ample opportunity to show off his talents and he proved to be well up to each of the tasks at hand, growing in self-assurance as the evening progressed.
Elliott Carters densely scored Allegro scorrevole (which can be translated as a flowing, gliding or scurrying Allegro) was composed in 1996 on commission from Dohnányis Cleveland Orchestra. Although the work is the third part of a triptych, Carter designed it to be playable as a stand-alone piece. Morlot elicited excellent playing from the Philharmonics musicians. He kept the orchestra in fine balance, allowing the composers varied instrumental combinations to shine through, while sustaining the pieces momentum and building excitement as it progressed. After the performance, the 97-year-old Carter appeared on stage to a warm reception.
The non-stop Schumann Symphony No.4 received an invigorating yet genial performance. The orchestra produced rich textures, maintaining a suitable balance among the instruments. In the opening movement, Morlot was particularly deft in managing smooth transitions of both dynamics and tempo. The second movement featured excellent ensemble playing by the entire woodwind section and a fine rendition of the solo violin passages by concertmaster Glenn Dicterow.
Morlot set a brisk tempo in the scherzo, as the strings, accented by the horns, carried the main theme, alternating with the more delicate melodic line spun by the flute and strings in the trio section. He then made a smooth transition from the dark Largo that opens the final movement into the Allegro vivace and its lively main theme, and handled the contrapuntal passages in mid-movement quite deftly. The horns, trumpets and trombones also stood out beautifully in this movement. Morlot set an almost breakneck pace in the concluding Presto, setting the fingers of principal cello Carter Brey all but flying over the strings as the orchestra drove to a thrilling finish.
Following the interval, Frank Peter Zimmermann gave an outstanding performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto. In the opening movement, his playing was vigorous and expressive, projecting a big, rich sound from the 1711 Lady Inchiquin Stradivarius (once owned by Fritz Kreisler). Zimmermann dashed off double-stops, scales, arpeggios, harmonics and more with apparent ease, meeting the concertos technical challenges brilliantly, especially in Joachims cadenza. Meanwhile, Morlot and the orchestra proved excellent partners, playing forcefully in the tutti
passages and supporting Zimmermanns solo line throughout. The result did justice to the highly dramatic and, above all, symphonic nature of the concerto.
The woodwind section took centre stage in the melancholic opening of the second movement, with the extended oboe solo lyrically played by Sherry Sylar, the Philharmonics acting principal. Zimmermann entered with a sweetly singing tone at first, but later evoked deeper emotions. He attacked the third movement forcefully, as its theme alternated between soloist and orchestra and received a long ovation.