Van Zweden's Modern Experiment Pays Off With Violinist Leila Josefowicz

By Adam J. Sacks

Violinist Leila Josefowicz. Photo credit: Chris Lee

Violinist Leila Josefowicz. Photo credit: Chris Lee

Jaap van Zweden has certainly made an impression of contrast to his predecessor as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert – gregarious, almost boisterous to the staid and reserved Gilbert.  The first native New York director and son of Philharmonic players has been replaced by a Dutchman who brings a European flair.  Boldly bringing new works from Europe in play, van Zweden led off the concerts of October 4-6th with Louis Andriessen’s Agamemnon, a World Premiere – New York Philharmonic Commission.  A pioneering modern music advocate, a son of a leading Dutch composer of the mid-20th Century, Andriessen’s work is a hyper-real depiction of the clashing characters of the famous Greek myth.  A study in leadership, buoyed throughout by drums and trumpets of war, the work has an almost campy quality as it introduces first a bassoon solo and then relies on instruments more evocative of a rock combo, such as electric guitar and base.  At the end the haunting motifs of women come to real life as a speaker, Juliette Ken de Balinthazy, stands up from amidst the orchestra and speaks the words of Kassandra in a startling normal speaking voice.

Propulsive energy is carried along by the guest turn of MacArthur Fellow, Leila Josefowicz, performing Stravinsky’s modernist Violin Concerto in D.  An infectious example of a soloist model meets rock star, Josefowicz’s gestural, almost muscular performance clothed in a Sinbad-like billowy light blue pants tent, adds almost a sense of humor to Stravinsky’s neo-Baroque mockery of romantic convention. Anything but a routine concerto, Stravinsky has the violin often play rhythm, deconstructing the normal state of affairs, and his percussive deep double stops are a great match for the gymnastic-like playing of the soloist.

As an artifact of the Weimar-era culture of distance, the work was premiered in Berlin in 1930, the succeeding Stravinsky selection on the program continues the theme of countering sentimentality. One of his most challenging and modernist works, his Symphonies of Wind Instruments does away with strings altogether and instead pursues the more “objectified” expression of wind instruments. This work also carries forth a sardonic air and while it logically follows from the Violin Concerto as if in a lesson plan, such modernist experiments seem strangely dated and were met with less audience enthusiasm than either the contemporary work at the start or the rousing grand work at the finale.

And van Zweden admirably proved himself capable of riding the waves along Debussy’s La Mer, where this uninhibited conductor was able to swell the ocean in a controlled way that did not at any time try to extract excess volume.  An Orientalist, Impressionist work of Japanoiserie, the Philharmonic percussion section captured the rumble of the wind as the main protagonist of the non-naturalist way Debussy’s carries forth his story.  Zweden though restores the lyricism arguably inherent in the work which preserves the kind of timelessness that the two works by Stravinsky struggle to muster. Judging by the colorful cross-section in the audience, including probably more than a few Juilliard students who found their way in by hook or by crook (as did van Zweden himself in his own Juilliard days), the cross section of contemporary canonical, with an added modernist experiment or two, might hold just the right recipe to bring some fire back to the belly of the New York Philharmonic.

Adam J Sacks holds a PhD from the Department of History at Brown University. He holds a Masters of Arts from Brown University, a Masters of Science (High Honors) from the City College of the City University of New York, and a Bachelor of Arts, Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell University.