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Mr. van Zweden’s Dancing Finale

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
11/26/2014 -  & November 28, 29*, 2014

Johan Wagenaar: Overture to Cyrano de Bergerac
Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 35
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Opus 92

Hilary Hahn (Violin)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden (Conductor)

For his final concerts here, that extremely impressive conductor Jaap van Zweden created a night for dancing. The first work, by Mr. van Zweden’s countryman Johan Wagenaar, offered a symphonic poem (posing as an overture) which danced through almost 15 minutes. The last movement of Korngold’s Violin Concerto was a rhythmical tour de force. As for Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, it was Wagner who called it a “dance symphony” and he wasn’t wrong.

Mr. van Zweden has the rhythms, the sometimes exaggerated motions, but always the utmost control which made all three works trip the (sometimes heavy, sometimes light) fantastic. And with his first work, a New York premiere, he showed a side of Dutch music which we had never heard before.

Mention Holland serious music, and you’d come up with some terrific orchestras, a half-dozen of the best conductors working today, and of course the Flemish School. But nary will non-experts find a famed Dutch composer. Names like Pipjer are better known than the music.

Enter Johan Wagenaar, with his overture to Cyrano de Bergerac. And yes, how obvious it is to say this sounds like Richard Strauss: the opening flourish like Don Juan, those wind solos like Til Eulenspiegel. Yet if the harmonies, the structure, the orchestration, the melodies all take after Wagenaar’s near-contemporary (born within two years of each other, died in the 1940’s within seven years of each other), I can think of another composer with whom he can share the spotlight.

Stockholm’s Karl Stenhammar came from another small country, his music was equally jubilant, brilliantly put together, and while both composers skirted the German musical behemoth, they both stand out on their own.

I listened later to Wagenaar’s other music on YouTube, all quite impressive. But this Cyrano work, conducted with all the zest necessary by Mr. van Zweden, offered a succinct picture of the dramatic figure. Not Strauss-like episodes, but facets of character: heroic, romantic, a section called “Love, Poetry”, all with swagger bravura, all seamlessly put together.

The following Korngold Violin Concerto was welcomed two years ago as a rarity, played with flamboyance and joy by that showy and astounding Leonidas Kavakos. Hilary Hahn, who has made a specialty of the Concerto is more of a “thinking person’s” soloist, and thinking too much about the Korngold doesn’t come to grips with its texture.

Known today as a composer for the great Warner Brothers movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s, Korngold never ever looked down on his Hollywood career, but always stated that he took it as earnestly as his “serious” music.

Nonetheless, this Concerto does have a Hollywood flavor, as the themes have been pilfered from the films. Ms. Hahn played it with her usual faultless beauty, though perhaps this wasn’t enough. Mr. Kavakos almost tossed it off with stylized élan. Ms. Hahn was gentle, searching, looking for a profundity which wasn’t really there.

Not until the fizzy, bubbly finale did she let herself go. But that movement is irresistible anyhow. No virtuoso can help but bring it off.

Mr. van Zweden’s Beethoven had a good amount of crackle, the second movement actually had momentum, was never stolid, and the last sections showed both the conductor and the New York Phil at their best.

Yet–and I hate to say it–the memories that come out of this concert weren’t listed in the program at all. After the Korngold Concerto, Ms. Hahn gave an encore of the Gigue from Bach Third Partita, which made up for all the doubts I had about the Concerto. Those 90-odd golden seconds by Ms. Hahn put the Korngold way into the shadows and Ms. Hahn into her own well-deserved halcyon of today’s violinists.

Harry Rolnick



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