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Review: The ‘Next Generation’ Is Showcased By the NY Phil

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, April 23, 2017

Three vital young musicians, as a group representing a younger demographic from which this audience might be accustomed to hearing en masse, helmed a concert by the New York Philharmonic that was extraordinarily gratifying, both in concept and execution.

Courtney Lewis, at age 32, is a busy and promising conductor originally from Northern Ireland, and recently served as Assistant Conductor for the New York Philharmonic. Currently in his second season as music director for the Jacksonville Symphony, Lewis demonstrates a well-honed poise on the podium. His polished, unimpeachable technique appears innate, and in David Geffen Hall on Thursday, one sensed great ease in his interaction with the instrumentalists, who seemed to respond in kind.

He began the evening with selections from Roméo et Julliette, a tone poem of Hector Berlioz, in a graceful, lively performance. Lewis achieved a keen lightness from potentially soupy romanticism of the Berlioz score, disciplined, crisp playing from the strings, and precise dramatics from the brass and percussion in the rousing music that brought this excerpt to a close.

36-year old New Yorker Jonathan Biss joined as soloist in a new-ish piano concerto entitled “The Blind Banister” by 32-year old Timo Andres. A tribute, of sorts, to Beethoven’s second piano concerto, this work is an exploration, as Andres writes in his program notes, of what exists in the “fault line” in Beethoven’s score where the first movement’s cadenza occurs. Indeed, the contemplative piece begins as if it were a modern-tinged cadenza for a concerto (no Beethoven is quoted here), but unfolds, bereft of any irony, into an admirable work of forward line and cohesion. The language feels very alive; harmonically, all-embracing, but not seeking dissonance for its own sake, and the melodic rhythms (yes, composers are writing melody again) echo the patterns of modern speech. Andres’s chamber orchestration was clever and creative, especially in using the strings to provide shimmering harmonic underpinning to the sometimes sparse piano line, delicious in its simplicity.

Jonathan Biss is a pianists’s pianist. A deeply communicative artist of probing intellectuality, boundless strength and technique, all in pure service to the music. Recently, he has been giving performances of Beethoven for the ages, delving into a complete cycle (and online lectures, etc.) of the Beethoven sonatas, and this appearance only solidified his position as a pre-eminent interpreter of the great composer’s uniquely demanding piano music.

In Beethoven’s early Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 19, in B-flat, Lewis led the orchestra to just the right metric exactness to keep the parties together in a sweeping, virtuosic reading of this vivacious piece. Even fortissimo punctuating chords were rounded, never harshly played. Biss made Beethoven sing at the piano, transcending complicated passagework to convey the essence of the musical utterance. He played the cadenza which inspired Andres’s “Blind Banister” splendidly, whipping up a towering inferno of motivic development which seems to evaporate to stillness before a whirlwind scale in thirds brings the movement to its satisfying conclusion.

The second movement was sublime, with the piano part alternating between Chopin-esque, singing variations on the lyrical melody, and burbling accompanying textures, which Biss tossed away with deceptive effortlessness. The third movement’s ‘Rondo: Molto allegro’ had just the right drive and verve and highlighted Beethoven’s sinister sense of humor.

The concert concluded with Edward Elgar’s In the South (Alassio), Op. 50, an evocative concert overture from 1904, apparently inspired by thoughts of ancient Romans during a vacation in Italy. Elgar is England’s answer to Wagner, Sibelius, and Mahler, and this score is befittingly rich and overstuffed. But what delectable richness, especially under the cool guidance of Mr. Lewis, played without excessive sentimentality by the smart New York musicians. The French horns warrant particular recognition for the stunning opening measures of the overture, and throughout the demanding score. Lewis brought rhapsodic shape to the exceedingly romantic ‘Poco meno mosso’ which brings emotional gravitas to Elgar’s vision, and ultimately builds to the piece’s satisfying resolution.




New York Philharmonic in concert at David Geffen Hall on April 20-25, 2017. Courtney Lewis, conductor; Jonathan Biss, pianist.

BERLIOZ: Selections from Roméo et Julliette
TIMO ANDRES: Piano Concerto No. 3, The Blind Banister
BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 2
ELGAR: In the South (Alassio)


Cover: Courtney Lewis conducting the New York Philharmonic with Jonathan Biss, piano; photo: Chris Lee.


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