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Review: With his L.A. Phil program, here’s what a man of mystery portends for New York

Jaap van Zweden, the New York Philharmonic music director designate, leads the L.A. Phil in a program of Beethoven and Shostakovich fifth symphonies Friday.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
Music Critic

When a little-known Dutch conductor who had recently become music director of the Dallas Symphony made his reportedly unremarkable debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2010, he was a man of mystery. Jaap van Zweden was back at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday morning for the first time since then, now the conductor of the hour, about to become music director of the New York Philharmonic beginning in 2018.

He is, nevertheless, still a man of mystery. New Yorkers don’t know what to expect from Van Zweden, who has a reputation as an exacting conductor but not perhaps the charismatic visionary the job currently requires.

There is a significant leadership vacuum in New York, with three top officials having resigned in January. Alan Gilbert’s music directorship ends this season. On the horizon are the hundreds of millions of dollars that must be raised for renovating David Geffen Hall, along with a solution for how the orchestra can stay vital during the two or, more likely, three years the orchestra will be homeless once construction begins.

On paper, Van Zweden’s L.A. Phil program of two warhorses — the fifth symphonies of Beethoven and Shostakovich — suggested a maestro of the same old-same old. On the podium, however, Van Zweden proved formidable.

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At a time when orchestras are avidly signing up amiable young conductors, along with seeking out women and leaders from outside central Europe, Van Zweden is a pugnacious Old World figure who bucks the trend. The concert hall is for him a no-coddling zone, and if he has a touchy-feely musical bone in his body, he’s not about to show it. The L.A. Phil, the orchestra that smiles, cracked no smiles Friday.

He led a tense, vigorously goal-directed, impressively impatient Beethoven Fifth. Nothing got in his way. He rarely lavished attention on sensual details. One effective trick was to propel forward motion through swooping gestures in inner string and wind parts.

What was most unusual is how Van Zweden’s interpretive starting point was often with a specific sonority. The strings projected a thick, richly textured, grainy character. The brass could be ferocious; the winds, piercing. Out of this brew came the rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, dramatic, emotional ideas, not the other way around.

Occasionally the sonorities were an end in themselves, as when Van Zweden created so weird an effect at the end of the Scherzo, with the strings sounding as though they were plucking on felt, that it left me wondering how he did it. But that was a rare lingering diversion. Mainly this was gruff, urgent Beethoven as all business, rather than the Beethoven of ideas we have come to expect in performances that illuminate the inner implications of every aspect of this symphony.

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Yet, observing this compact, gruff conductor who has no need for niceties, I had a curious notion. Might not Beethoven have been something like that, restively driving performers? Just a thought.

Shostakovich’s Fifth was as direct. In this supposedly patriotic 1937 symphony, there is always the unresolved question as to whether the composer, fearful of Stalin’s lethal criticisms, wrote something subversive or sycophantic. Play the last movement fast and it is triumphant. Slow it down and terror surfaces.

Observing this compact, gruff conductor who has no need for niceties, I had a curious notion. Might not Beethoven have been something like that?

Van Zweden played it straight, seemingly Soviet style, again with attention to propulsion. He had no fun with the gaudier or tawdrier elements of the Scherzo. He brought stern beauty to the Adagio, which made it feel especially bleak. The Finale was fast but impressively angry-fast rather than triumphant-fast, with an underlying threat of violence. (For a sample of the score from the horse’s mouth, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, which premiered the symphony, will play it at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge on Thursday night.)

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Does it make any sense to suggest this program foretells anything about the New York Philharmonic’s future? Maybe, just a little.

A challenge to any music director in the Big Apple is the competition from the regular New York appearances of the world’s ranking orchestras. Furthermore, the two other top East Coast orchestras, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Boston Symphony, each play several concerts every year in Carnegie Hall and each now has a glamorous, youthful music director.

It so happens that Philadelphia’s Yannick Nézet-Séquin’s one appearance with the L.A. Phil included a showily superficial Shostakovich Fifth, and Andris Nelsons’ recording of that symphony, which just won a Grammy, is overly reliant on the gauzy beauty of the Boston Symphony. In this company, New York may be able to boast of van Zweden substantiveness.

Then there is the vision thing. The L.A. Phil program may stand out as meat and potatoes for a visionary orchestra. But in the transitional season coming up in New York, in which Van Zweden leads only three programs, the music director designate is already making a statement by including Philip Glass’ Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in his opening concert.

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Hard to believe, but this makes Van Zweden the first to present a symphonic program on a work by the world’s best known classical composer and a central figure in New York’s musical life for decades. That the double concerto happened to be commissioned by the L.A. Phil is a nice added touch.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

L.A. Phil with Jaap van Zweden

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

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Tickets: $69-$200 (extremely limited availability; prices subject to change)

Information: (323) 850-2000, laphil.org

mark.swed@latimes.com

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