Mar 13, 2023

The New York Philharmonic’s Season of Mixed Boons


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Critic's Notebook

The orchestra's renovated hall and Gustavo Dudamel, its next leader, have kept ticket sales robust, but cool acoustics curb the music's impact.

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By Zachary Woolfe

David Geffen Hall, the New York Philharmonic's gut-renovated home at Lincoln Center, isn't perfect.

The decorating tends cheesy and clashing — even if seating that wraps around the stage has done wonders for intimacy. And the sound, for all its improvements on the old acoustics, leans coolly antiseptic.

But for the orchestra, which ends its first season in what is essentially a new hall this weekend, Geffen has been a kind of talisman.

Last fall, when performing arts groups around the country were blindsided by theaters half-full (and worse), the excitement of the hall's reopening insulated the Philharmonic from a similar fate. Sales have been robust all season.

In February, another talisman appeared: the star conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who was named the orchestra's next music director. Though Dudamel won't raise his baton at Geffen next season — and though classical music's bizarrely stretched planning cycles mean he won't officially start until 2026 — there was already a clear sense of his power as an audience draw in his three sold-out concerts in May.

Dudamel is probably the only figure capable of putting such an exclamation point on the unveiling of the hall, a $550 million project. And an exclamation point on the season, as he conducted Mahler's Ninth Symphony — an extreme and emotional, expansive yet focused piece particularly treasured by this orchestra, which its composer conducted for a brief but memorable stint just before his death in 1911.

I attended all three performances, trying to get the fullest possible sense of what might come from the relationship of this maestro to this orchestra and this space. The message was mixed.

The first performance, a Friday evening, sounded fine, the players poised. But poise is hardly the takeaway you want from Mahler's harrowing Ninth; there was nothing intense or uncomfortable about this interpretation, nothing personal or inexorable.

The first movement progressed with bland serenity. The middle movements danced pleasantly, without a hint of the manic. The Adagio finale, its own epic journey of agony and relief, was mild-mannered. The third performance, a Sunday matinee, was much the same.

But the middle go, on Saturday night, offered a glimpse of a more vital alchemy. The quality of the playing remained high — and was now infused with some of Dudamel's oft-mentioned but not always apparent vibrancy.

Those inner movements had taken on menacing bite, whipping between contrasting sections; the Adagio was a deeper evocation of stillness and fragility. This was not profound or moving Mahler, but it had a spark.

At these concerts, as throughout the season, there was a sense that Geffen Hall, rather than bringing together this mass of instruments in a blooming blend, was etching the sound, hard, in the air.

While orchestras take a good, long time to fully adjust to new homes, after a full season it can be said: Geffen's acoustics seem lucid and balanced, but also stiff and stark, the sonic equivalent of the blond-wood auditorium's cold, harsh lighting, which makes you squint a bit as you enter and floods the stage during performances.

These qualities make it better suited to certain repertoire — Romantic sumptuousness is particularly hard to come by — and the Philharmonic is going to have to work hard to build the richness of its sound if the hall isn't going to help.

What also isn't going to help, unfortunately, is the Philharmonic's current music director, Jaap van Zweden, who has seemed an overshadowed guest at his own party since Geffen's reopening and Dudamel's appointment. Van Zweden, who finishes his short tenure next season, has a tough, blunt style — a "Pines of Rome" of bludgeoning volume in October, a sludgy "Turangalîla-Symphonie" in March — that emphasizes the hall's acoustic shortcomings rather than relieving them.

The concerts at which those shortcomings were least noticeable were, by and large, led by guests. The conductor Hannu Lintu made his Philharmonic debut in November with a cogent, precise program of Stravinsky, Bartok (the rarely played Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion), Kaija Saariaho and Sibelius. At the end of that month, the hall's acoustics were actually a boon, helping cut the fat in what could have been an overly indulgent program of French works, led by Stéphane Denève with a kaleidoscopic sleekness well suited to the space.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted a raucous rendition of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony in February, a week before Thomas Adès's superb 2008 piano concerto "In Seven Days" — which should be a repertory staple — returned to the Philharmonic for the first time in 12 years. Felipe Lara's Double Concerto, an exuberant showcase for Claire Chase (on a battery of flutes) and Esperanza Spalding (singing and playing double bass), had a sensational New York premiere in March under Susanna Mälkki.

Last month, a blistering program of Prokofiev's Third Symphony and Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto, with the dazzling, preternaturally mature 19-year-old Yunchan Lim as soloist, was as much a showcase for the gifted conductor James Gaffigan as it was for Lim. When will Gaffigan get an American orchestra?

But there was no more poignant and musically stimulating spectacle this season than the return to the podium in February of Herbert Blomstedt, who, at 95, guided with utter control Ingvar Lidholm's sternly elegant "Poesis," a work whose premiere Blomstedt presided over in 1963.

Back in those days, the Philharmonic's then-new hall was already being criticized for its acoustics. For decades there didn't seem to be the will to fix it, and the current leaders of the orchestra and Lincoln Center deserve great praise for finally bringing the project over the finish line.

The public areas are roomier now, and capacity has been cut; you still wait for the bathroom at intermission, but not nearly as long as you used to. In quiet, glistening music, like some of John Adams's "My Father Knew Charles Ives" in October, Geffen offers a transparent sonic window.

But in concertos by composers as varied as Mozart, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, whether for violinist or pianist, the soloists recede a bit too thoroughly into the orchestral textures. At top volume and density, there's blare where there should be grandeur. And when real warmth is needed, as in the symphonies of Mahler or Florence Price, there's the small but important lack of bloom and build, of resonance.

The audiences and excitement are there in the hall. But the full impact of the music isn't.

Zachary Woolfe became The Times's classical music critic in 2022, after serving as classical music editor since 2015. Prior to joining The Times, he was the opera critic of the New York Observer. @zwoolfe


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