Review: The New York Philharmonic Brings Back the Standards

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It had to end at some point.

For the past month, the New York Philharmonic has been an unexpected source of novelty: premieres, queer cabaret, the orchestra’s first performances of works by Eastman, Kodaly and Martinu. But last week, Strauss’s rare “Brentano-Lieder” was followed by the familiar creeping back in the form of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.

And now comes a program (despite a brief opener from the underrated Erwin Schulhoff) of well-worn pieces by Mendelssohn and Dvorak that were most recently heard here in 2019 — which, with pandemic closures, might as well have been last year. Fortunately, there are few conductors as trustworthy in the standard repertory as Manfred Honeck, who led the Philharmonic on Thursday at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

The Czech-born Schulhoff crossed paths with the likes of Dvorak and Debussy before embarking on a promising career that was cut short: first by Nazi blacklisting, then by his death, at 48, in the Wülzberg concentration camp. His Five Pieces for String Quartet, from 1923, is a modern treatment of a Baroque suite, with each movement inspired by a specific dance style. The work’s chamber scale came to the Philharmonic transformed, in an arrangement for full orchestra by Honeck and Thomas Ille, who have also collaborated on symphonic assemblages from operas such as “Jenufa” and “Rusalka.”

All arrangements are acts of translation, and here Schulhoff’s humor was lost along the way. With a massive sound from added brass and percussion at the start, this Five Pieces was less lightly playful and more Mahlerian — witty and ironic, but with martial heft. Once tinged with Debussian sonorities, the third-movement Czech dance was a dark memory of Dvorak. In the tango that followed, what was previously implied in rhythm became literal in exotic-Spain castanets, and the closing tarantella took itself too seriously.

There is nothing inherently wrong with arrangements, an art form in themselves. But this take on Schulhoff felt like a missed opportunity. Among the lessons we have learned from the pandemic is that orchestral programming doesn’t need to be formulaic, that a string quartet can easily share the stage with a symphony. And Schulhoff — chronically underrepresented, especially on Philharmonic subscription concerts — would benefit from advocacy for music that is truly his.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor is a common rite of passage for violinists, and on Thursday it was the vehicle for Ray Chen’s Philharmonic debut. Charismatic and expressive, he took up the work like a Romantic hero while Honeck maintained a modest, if indistinct, accompaniment in the orchestra. That would have left room for any soloist, but Chen rarely dipped below mezzo forte in volume, his force evident in the many bow hairs he broke during the performance.

Chen’s full-bodied lyricism nevertheless made for beautifully contoured phrases in the violin’s highest, riskiest registers. The concerto calls for that often, but not always, and his interpretation, delivered as if with a sticky, heavy bow, rarely mined the contrasts of flowing melody and bouncing agility. Only in the sprinting theme of the finale did he at last find a lighter touch. More relaxed yet was the encore, his own fantasy-like arrangement of “Waltzing Matilda,” the unofficial national anthem of Australia, where he grew up.

Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony clocked in longer here than in many other accounts. But Honeck’s reading was one that rewarded patience — the introduction making up in atmosphere what it lacked in drive. That was just the start of a thoroughly fresh performance, one in which loudness, for example, was never simply loud; it signified festivity or tumult, or both at once. His Adagio, begun with Brahmsian lushness, was unafraid of silence, revealing the holy in the pastoral. The finale had the feel of a dance suite, a subtle nod back to the Schulhoff, with Dvorak’s series of repeated phrases a journey from the lofty to the frisky and affectingly wistful.

As guest conductors have passed through recently — with Herbert Blomstedt and Gustavo Dudamel on the way — the Philharmonic players have shown a promising malleability often missing from concerts with their music director, Jaap van Zweden, who leaves in 2024. And under the right baton, they can even be forgiven for putting on the classics. As they proved with Honeck, standard doesn’t have to mean stale.

New York Philharmonic

This program continues through Saturday at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Manhattan; nyphil.org.

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