New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall – Jaap van Zweden conducts Marcos Balter, John Adams, Tania León and Respighi

Marcos Balter
Oyá, for light, electronics, and orchestra [world premiere]
John Adams
My Father Knew Charles Ives
Tania León
Pini di Roma

Levy Lorenzo (electronics)

Nicholas Houfek (lights)

New York Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 15 October, 2022
Venue: Wu Tsai Theater, David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Due to ongoing construction, the New York Philharmonic performed most of its 2021-22 season concerts at Alice Tully Hall or Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, but this month the orchestra returned to the newly renovated David Geffen Hall. During the two-year remodeling – the second acoustical upgrade of the sixty-year-old space (the first was in 1976) – the interior was completely gutted and rebuilt.

This first subscription program of the season opened with Marco’s Balter’s Oyá, a fantasy of light and sound commissioned by the Philharmonic to celebrate the reopening of the concert space. The work is one of a series exploring West African Yoruba deities known as Orishas, and the title refers to a Yoruba god of destruction and healing.

Balter’s elaborate score employs dozens of different instruments, more than half of them percussive, along with lighting and electronics, to depict what he describes as a cosmic vision of destruction and rebirth. Nicholas Houfek, working from a perch located in one of the rows at the center of the auditorium, used his digital board to steadily bounce short, intense flashes of multicolored lights off the surfaces of the auditorium and occasionally flood the hall with white light. At the soundboard next to him, Levy Lorenzo, generated an array of hyperactive effects that only rarely merged with the percussion. Although technically impressive, the sound and light show was less than totally involving and served as more of a distraction than an enhancement of what the orchestra was playing.

Next came something better suited to highlighting the hall’s newly clarified acoustic: a sparkling and memorable account of My Father Knew Charles Ives, John Adams’s picturesque three-movement work paralleling Ives’s Three Places in New England. After opening with an evocative trumpet solo beautifully rendered by Christopher Martin, the music moved into the first movement, ‘Concord’, calling up musical memories from Adams’s childhood in Concord, New Hampshire, in which distinct details in an overlapping mélange of march tunes and hymns could be heard. In the second movement, ‘The Lake’, soft sounds of a piano playing old-fashioned dance music floated across the slowly lapping water, and in the third, ‘The Mountain’, bright brass and throbbing strings recalled the majesty and power of a peak near the composer’s boyhood home and a dormant volcano near his adult home in northern California. Jaap van Zweden was extraordinarily animated, seemingly pumped up by the sounds the new hall could more clearly convey.

Tania León’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Stride, premiered by the Philharmonic in 2019, returned to the Geffen stage. The sumptuous score, inspired by the life and courage of suffragette Susan B. Anthony and the struggles of the composer’s mother and grandmother in Cuba, marked by jazz colorings and echoes of Caribbean musical traditions, is full of surprises – bright brass fanfares, bluesy solos from the winds, and firm but delicate rhythms from an ample array of percussion. Van Zweden elicited an assertive but supple performance, and it was wonderful to witness such a broad range of timbres emanating from the ensemble in the newly refurbished space.

The final item was Pines of Rome. Van Zweden opened ‘Pines of the Villa Borghese’ with a splendid splash of color and then moved into an appropriately somber mood for ‘Pines Near a Catacomb’. ‘Pines of the Janiculum’ was peacefully serene as the song of a nightingale (recorded) floated by. The big finale, ‘Pines of the Appian Way’, had a superb sense of drama as it built up to a climax and two groups of six brass players slipped in from the doors at the sides of the auditorium and moved to a front row to joyfully depict the buccine triumphantly mounting the Capitoline Hill and brought the concert to a spectacular end.

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