The elements came out for “The Elements.”
A clever friend made that observation at the New York Philharmonic’s concert on Friday evening, as the city emerged from a deluge that broke records and inundated subways. The weather was probably a large part of the reason that David Geffen Hall was pocked with an unusual number of empty seats for a performance featuring the star violinist Joshua Bell.
Bell was the soloist in — and instigator of — “The Elements,” a new suite of short concerto-esque pieces inspired by the natural world, with five composers as contributors. He was the focus on Friday, just as Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic’s admired, just-departed chief executive, was on Wednesday at the orchestra’s season-opening gala.
On neither occasion was full attention turned to the man on the podium, the season’s ostensible honoree: Jaap van Zweden, the Philharmonic’s music director, who is leaving in the spring after a brief, pandemic-interrupted tenure, before Gustavo Dudamel arrives in 2026.
“Celebrate Jaap!” the orchestra’s marketing orders us (with an implied whisper of “…or else”). But the feeling is one of saying goodbye before we’ve really gotten to know van Zweden — and of a man who’s been a participant in the Philharmonic’s recent history rather than its leader.
The period since he started, in 2018, will almost certainly be remembered for the ensemble’s survival through the long pandemic shutdown, for the fast-tracked renovation of Geffen Hall and for an influx of contemporary music, especially by women and composers of color. In these achievements, it was more Borda’s Philharmonic than van Zweden’s.
His personality hasn’t come through in his choice of works. Even in the kind of pieces for which he was primarily hired — his predecessor, Alan Gilbert, was perceived as less of a polished taskmaster in the likes of Beethoven and Brahms — van Zweden has largely stuck to the most standard of the standards. When the little-done 12th Symphony of Shostakovich, a composer he conducts effectively, was played by the Philharmonic for the first time last season, it was under the baton of Rafael Payare.
So van Zweden’s time in New York feels a little faceless, and so short that Steve Reich, whose “Jacob’s Ladder” premieres this week, was mentioned in Friday’s program as a composer van Zweden has “championed” — apparently by leading a single Reich piece, four years ago. There’s the sense of the orchestra’s trying to manufacture an identity for a conductor who hasn’t been around long enough to develop one organically.
This final season brings some firsts for him at the Philharmonic in core repertory: his first Schubert symphony, first Mendelssohn symphony, first Mozart Requiem. There’s more Shostakovich and Brahms; yet another Beethoven’s Fifth; Sofia Gubaidulina’s brooding, ferocious Viola Concerto, from 1996; and a handful of newer pieces.
His finale, in June, will be Mahler’s grand, choral Second Symphony, an all-purpose Philharmonic favorite for occasions both reflective (the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks) and triumphant (Leonard Bernstein’s 1,000th concert with the orchestra). In all this, there’s not much personal taste to be gleaned.
If van Zweden hasn’t had an idiosyncratic vision in his choices of music, though, he has shown a consistent, characteristic style in the works he’s conducted. The typical Jaap-led symphony is tense, tight, punchy. He makes the Philharmonic’s sound glint and glare, especially in the live-wire acoustics of the new Geffen Hall, which can tip into harshness rather than encouraging rounded, blended warmth.
You get the impression that he’s been attempting an evocation of the flashy, blazing, sometimes blaring reign of Georg Solti at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the 1970s and ’80s, captured in influential recordings. But while the Philharmonic is a very high-quality ensemble, it is not quite at the same level of flawlessly brilliant precision as Solti’s Chicagoans.
So you get the overbearing control and aggressive forcefulness without the climactic grandeur or dumbfounding shine. I had never heard Copland’s Third Symphony, which the Philharmonic played on Friday after “The Elements,” sound so un-pastoral. This can sometimes be a baggy work, but van Zweden made it taut — and arid.
A sharp edge in the first movement kept the music moving, and avoided sentimentality. Van Zweden brought out the second movement’s machinelike motion, and the eerie transparency of the slow third, before a finale — showcasing the classic “Fanfare for the Common Man” — of lean focus. This was a Third without much sweetness or sumptuousness.
It was almost interesting, such a tough, grimly logical progress through the work — as if a reflection on a different United States than the one Copland was commemorating at the victorious close of World War II. And after years of the old hall’s undervaluing bass frequencies, it remains wonderful to feel them so viscerally now; the clarity of solos, particularly in the winds, is impressive.
Perhaps surprisingly, given van Zweden’s base in older repertory and firm hand in symphonies, he’s been a game and sensitive leader of a broad swath of contemporary music, and a considerate, never domineering concerto accompanist. On Wednesday, he was polite even as Yo-Yo Ma was too light-textured to make a strong impact in Dvorak’s evergreen Cello Concerto.
And on Friday, van Zweden guided the orchestra eloquently and smoothly around Bell in “The Elements.” But this 40-minute suite, an attempt to recast Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” for our time, is basically syrupy schlock.
Kevin Puts’s “Earth,” which begins and ends the work, has a sleepily saccharine section plainly borrowed from Copland, and some madcap, off-kilter propulsion plainly borrowed from John Adams. Jake Heggie’s “Fire” sets off bursts of orchestral “sparks” and racing whimsy, trimmed with celesta. Jennifer Higdon’s “Air” is blooming, not particularly airy; Jessie Montgomery’s “Space,” yet another romance-then-romp structure.
All of this was practically begging for film to accompany it and fill out its vagueness — with a uniformity of style, texture and color that made the pieces practically interchangeable manifestations of Bell’s warm, genially bland playing.
And Edgar Meyer’s tame “Water,” with its undulating winds and trickles of violin, was certainly no match for what had been going on outside.