I got to my seat a few minutes before the concert started. I was close to the stage and had an excellent view of the guest conductor, Xian Zhang, who I'd seen a few years earlier in her role as associate conductor of the Philharmonic. The first work on the program was Haydn's Symphony No. 95, which I didn't know all that well. The Philharmonic's rendition was good but perhaps a bit too energetic. I may be woefully uninformed but this doesn't seem to be an orchestra designed to play Haydn and Mozart. Either that, or Zhang's conducting was a little too enthusiastic and vigorous for a lighter composer like Haydn. Her gestures were precise but overly expressive and the orchestra reacted by playing louder and with more power than the work required. There were a few sections where the strings overpowered the winds and brass when a more delicate touch would have balanced the volume. Zhang reminded me of Gustavo Dudamel. She didn't share his exultation in every phrase of the music, but she did demonstrate expressive gestures similar to Dudamel's. During the Haydn symphony, I thought about writing down my impressions for this review so I wouldn't have to strain to remember the details later. I found that the back of the “upcoming concerts” insert in the program makes for a suitable notepad for the amateur concert reviewer. However, next time I think I'll bring a real notebook.
Zhang's style was much better suited to Martinu's Piano Concerto No. 4, subtitled Incantation. I'm not that familiar with Martinu's overall catalog but I've enjoyed everything of his that I've heard so far. His music is a mix of Czech themes with atonality and tonality blended in an unusual but pleasing way. I don't remember many details of the piano concerto, though there were times where the brass overwhelmed the strings. Maybe it was where I was sitting, or the normal issues conductors have with Avery Fisher's acoustics. Watching soloist Garrick Ohlsson and Zhang at the podium, I thought that Ohlsson appeared reserved compared to Zhang's overt expression. At the end of the work I noticed that Ohlsson looked extremely tall. Maybe he is, or maybe Zhang is just that short. But he's a really big man. You know what they say about big pianists: they have big hands.
After the intermission came the work I was most interested in hearing: Sibelius's Symphony No. 1. I've become more familiar with Sibelius' symphonies over the past few years and his 1st has become one of my favorites. From the first measures, after Mark Nuccio's excellent clarinet solo, I had the idea that Sibelius is the type of composer whose works the Philharmonic has been built to perform. It was clear that this symphony was the piece on the program with which they were most familiar. (They last played in in 2008, while they hadn't played the other works in many years.) Zhang also seemed most at home with this piece. Here, her expressiveness and energy found a welcome home. It's possible that I was overcome by my own familiarity with the work, but I had chills throughout the final movement. It was just like when I heard the Philharmonic perform Sibelius's 2nd Symphony last June. I knew what was coming, and I reacted as I expected: I was nearly on the edge of my seat waiting to hear how the orchestra played the work. Sibelius's music has such expansive themes combined with brass explosions and delicate wind chorales that I found it difficult to listen with a detached, critical ear. I don't know how professional reviewers do it. I thoroughly enjoyed the Sibelius and I'd consider paying to hear it again. It was that good.
I'm glad I decided to take myself out tonight. Aside from having the Saturday night free for the concert, it was a performance that I would have regretted missing had I passed on it for another concert later in the season. My only regret for the afternoon and evening was that I couldn't find a seat at a Starbucks. I had brought my laptop with the hope of getting some work done on some personal projects, but I couldn't find any open seats at any Starbucks in the Lincoln Square area. So I carried a heavy backpack all over the neighborhood for nothing. I may count that as exercise for the weekend.