New York Philharmonic/Jaap van Zweden – Lohengrin Prelude & Tchaikovsky 4 – Cynthia Phelps plays Julia Adolphe’s Unearth, Release

Lohengrin – Prelude to Act I
Julia Adolphe
Unearth, Release (Concerto for Viola and Orchestra) [New York Philharmonic co-commission: New York premiere]
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

Cynthia Phelps (viola)

New York Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 17 November, 2016
Venue: David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Cynthia Phelps with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Jaap van Zweden at Lincoln CenterPhotograph: Chris LeeJaap van Zweden made his first appearance with the New York Philharmonic since being announced as its music director designate, the orchestra playing with immaculate precision and rich, vibrant sound. Yet the Prelude to Lohengrin, slightly hurried, although seamless was only moderately engaging. Violins generated an ethereal glow and the brass produced stentorian tones to glorify the climax, yet overall lacked the magic that this music can elicit if paced more spaciously.

There followed Julia Adolphe’s Unearth, Release. Adolphe is a promising young composer, a native of New York City, and this viola concerto is primarily tonal enhanced by occasional dissonant intervals, with something of a dramatic flair that doesn’t develop into full bloom. Her material consists principally of scraps that try without much success to generate lyricism, offsetting the confines of the viola’s moderate dynamics through spare accompaniment, letting the orchestra resound fully when the viola is silent and Adolphe makes creative use of an expanded percussion section.

Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln CenterPhotograph: Chris LeeAt the outset of the opening movement, ‘Captive Voices’, Adolphe’s attempt to generate a mysterious atmosphere is only partially successful. A dark cloud envelops the music only to be abruptly cast aside by orchestral intrusions of raging fury which dissipate quickly. ‘Surface Tension’ sets a brisk pace and begins with slashing rhythms that promise stirring passages that fail to be delivered. Angular darting figures race wildly but spend their energies too quickly, leaving the listener breathless but unmoved. At the start of ‘Embracing Mist’, a vaporous haze shrouds proceedings but the mysterious atmosphere disappears too quickly, the music wandering aimlessly until it simply drops off inconclusively. Cynthia Phelps, Philharmonic principal, was in top form.

In Tchaikovsky’s magnificent Fourth Symphony Van Zweden’s pacing was brisk throughout, the flow seamless and the Philharmonic’s response outstanding in all respects; themes had shape and coherence and inner voices were lucid. In the next movement woodwind solos by Liang Wang, Anthony McGill and Judith LeClair were simply gorgeous and then the pizzicato third flitted about in elfin character with clarity and immaculate precision. Van Zweden set the Finale at a furious pace, forcing the lyrical second subject to comport with its dashing speed, and for the closing section he even accelerated far beyond the Tempo I direction yet the orchestra showed remarkable resilience, staying with him without a hitch.

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