A spontaneous ovation resounded through the newly renovated, acoustically improved Lincoln Center concert hall recently rechristened David Geffen Hall. Standing in front of the New York Philharmonic, the soloist beamed as the conductor turned to acknowledge the applause.
It was only the end of the first movement. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major had two movements to go. Violinist Lisa Batiashvili had so energized the crowd that the silly custom of holding applause until the end of the full concerto had dribbled away like spit from a French horn.
The violinist was one of three featured female artists at the New York Philharmonic’s January 20–22 program. Ukrainian conductor Dalia Stasevska had the podium. And a newly commissioned short work by Wang Lu, who hails from Xi’an, China, set the table.
A Surge of Originality from the New York Philharmonic
Wang’s aggressive “Surge” offered sighing dissonances and glassy textures, start-stop jags of rhythm, and what sounded to me like evocations of nature – birds (including woodpeckers), weather, gushes of water. The word “surge” has had negative connotations in recent years – a refreshed attack by a deadly virus, an escalation of a tragic and extravagantly wasteful military operation. Yet while the artful clashings made me anxiously alert, a celebratory spirit lurked in the interstices of this powerful piece. (The piece was commissioned by the League of American Orchestras, which includes the New York Philharmonic, as part of a program where 30 ensembles present new works by six contemporary female composers.)
Tchaikovsky and Sibelius
After Wang took a bow, Batiashvili swooped into the Tchaikovsky, her tone distinct and clear, whispery when appropriate, executing the virtuosic runs and jumps with fluid ease. Joy on a grand scale geysered from the stage as soloist, conductor and featured woodwinds exchanged body language almost like interpretive choreography. Batiashvili locked in her first-movement ovation with brilliant pyrotechnics through the cadenza and on through to the end.
In the second movement she plucked emotion from fragments of melody and from sweeping phrases. Her exquisite interplay with the winds was simply beautiful. Then, supported solidly by the orchestra, she dove into the playful feel of the finale with speed and agility.
An interesting note: Another female violinist, Maud Powell, gave the U.S. premiere of the full concerto, in January 1889, with a precursor of the New York Philharmonic. It’s very satisfying today to see a performance by a female soloist alongside a female conductor. That said, these circumstances are becoming less and less of a novelty. It wasn’t long ago that I could count all the female conductors I knew of on the fingers of one hand, with probably one or two digits left over. Those days are well over.
The program then jumped a generation ahead in music history, to the Symphony No. 2 in D major by Jean Sibelius. Right from the rumbling, ominous start, an animated Stasevska brought out the orchestra’s manifold colors. High cinematic urgency gave way to sweeping pastoral harmonies, then expansive, quivering moodiness.
Aided by the notably improved acoustics of the former Avery Fisher Hall and the conductor’s close, thoughtful interpretation, the orchestra brought out the brights and darks, cools and hots of the various instruments with clarity and vigor. The slow movement was deeply felt and remarkably affecting; the finale climaxed with a titanic sound. Altogether, I can’t recall hearing a more intelligent and fresh reading of Sibelius’ distinctive sense of time and unique musical language.