Review: A Rising Star Debuts With the Philharmonic

On paper, this week’s New York Philharmonic program had plenty going for it: balance, an up-and-coming conductor, an established soloist. But at David Geffen Hall on Thursday, the concert was only sometimes on the verge of grand, and just as often one or two kindling sticks short of a true fire.

Still, the show provided an opportunity to catch the rising star Jonathon Heyward, who was making his Philharmonic debut, filling in for Karina Canellakis. In a few months, he will become the first Black music director of the Baltimore Symphony. And, from the start of Thursday’s performance, his reputation for dramatic feeling and attention to dynamics seemed to be well earned.

Heyward drew dynamism from the orchestra, without any recourse to stentorian volume, in the opening minutes of Zosha Di Castri’s “Lineage,” an 11-minute piece from 2013. Like some of her works on the recent portrait album “Tachitipo,” this one derives momentum from hairpin turns that link together drone-ish states and startling streams of motivic activity. But toward the end of the work, in some hushed moments of still-busy writing, the Philharmonic’s interpretation slackened — sounding tentative, or short of full commitment.

Something similar transpired during Brahms’s lengthy and majestic Violin Concerto, which followed. Initially, Heyward had the full attention of the Philharmonic players. During the opening movement, he subtly shaped a dramatic pause not long before the entrance of the soloist, Christian Tetzlaff; the orchestra responded with tactile precision to his dramatic, yet not too mannered, method of navigating the transition.

Tetzlaff‌ was as impressive here as on a recent recording of this piece on the Ondine ‌label; though his approach was obviously well-drilled in advance, he also proved sensitive here to Heyward’s beat. And his expert handling of Joseph Joachim’s first-movement cadenza — with playing that varied in its timbral effects, from rough-hewn to silvery to robustly expressive — showed an invention that had been missing for a stretch of time in the broader ensemble playing.

Sometimes, Tetzlaff seemed to toss off a line reading, appearing none too studied, but in service of setting up explosive precision. A bit of that moment-to-moment interpretive sensibility in the surrounding orchestral material might have proved equally thrilling.

Thankfully, after intermission, a greater nimbleness prevailed during Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra. Although it is not as formally radical as other works in this Polish modernist’s catalog, Heyward and the orchestra found a great wealth of rambunctious material to savor. The first movement’s folk-like melody had a singing quality that contrasted nicely with some moments of raging, post-Stravinsky exclamation. The gentler middle movement had an air of transporting mystery. And the passacaglia of the third movement progressed with persuasive momentum.

The final work also dispelled a sense I had that the Brahms might have been hobbled by the slightly chilly acoustic of the recently renovated Geffen Hall. In the Lutoslawski, there were some rounded, warm sounds that had been missing during the appropriate passages in the Brahms. But the orchestra is still getting used to its new home, and Heyward is still getting used to this orchestra; with time, a program like this might find a better tone.

And he will be back. After Saturday’s performance — which is followed by a Nightcap program drawn up by Di Castri — Heyward will be absent from Geffen Hall only until he leads the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra there in August.

New York Philharmonic

This program repeats through Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan;

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