Forget Duda: the most captivating conductor in America today is David Robertson, hands down. Whether it's his innovative programs with the St. Louis Symphony or his experiments with students at Carnegie Hall, Robertson is always looking for ways to push the boundaries of what to expect in the concert hall. And, he does so with a lightly didactic charm and ebullience that would give Lenny a run for his money.
Case in point: Robertson's concerts this week with the New York Phil, which featured an intriguing program that oscillated between music of our time and that of 18th-century Vienna. I went to last night's concert in Avery Fisher Hall, and I'm happy to say it was one of the most magical evenings I've had with the Phil in a long, long time.
The concert began with Messiaen's Les Offrandes oubliees (1930), a Ravel-like meditation on Christian themes Messiaen wrote when he was only 21. Robertson, who knew Messiaen personally when he lived in Paris, conducted with deep feeling and intuition, alternating between shimmering languor and explosive violence.
Next, Robertson brought out Pierre-Laurent Aimard for a pair of piano concertos, showing both sides of the French master's diverse personality. First was Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, which Aimard dispatched with a deep, penetrating intellect—particularly the Adagio, which was profound in its painstaking slowness. As Messiaen once wrote, the 23rd "stakes a place on the very top rung...the most perfect of all."
After intermission, Aimard returned to play the U.S. premiere of Tristan Murail's Le Desenchantement du monde (The Disenchantment of the World), a Philharmonic co-commission. Murail, who until recently was chair of the composition department at Columbia, has only had his music performed once before by the Phil: in 2009, when they performed his 1980 orchestral work, Gondwana. Here, Murail worked in a purely acoustic medium, seamlessly interweaving piano and orchestra in rich, penetrating sonorities that echoed his former teacher, Messiaen. There were occasional issues with balance as the orchestra swirled around Aimard, but that may have been a particular quirk of AFH.
By the time Aimard took his final curtain call, it was already pushing 10 o'clock. But, Robertson decided to send everyone home with Beethoven's Second Symphony, the least performed of the famous nine. Robertson, who conducted without a score, literally danced on the podium, his movements seemingly choreographed to Beethoven's propulsive music. The Phil responded in kind, playing with a fire and finesse I've rarely heard in the many years I've been making the trek uptown. Credit Robertson, credit Music Director Alan Gilbert, credit the long-overdue replacement of several key players who had long outstayed their welcome. Whatever it is, it's pretty damned exciting to finally have the crack orchestra this city deserves.
In 2014, Robertson takes over as Music Director of the Sydney Symphony while continuing in that same role in St. Louis, which means that we'll probably not get to see him as much in these parts. Let's hope the Phil decides to bring him back at least once more before then; with all of these new young players, they deserve all the charisma they can get.
More pics on the photo page.