Review: Beethoven Gets a Sequel at the New York Philharmonic

04.21.17
Jonathan Biss
New York Times

Start with two sibling creations: say, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Timo Andres’s “The Blind Banister,” a concerto closely related to it, at least in the mind of Mr. Andres. Add two unrelated works with, for whatever reason, an eye toward chaos.
 
You could hardly create a less coherent program than the one the New York Philharmonic is presenting this week, opening with excerpts from Berlioz’s dramatic symphony “Roméo et Juliette” and closing with Elgar’s symphonic poem “In the South (Alassio).” Conducted by Courtney Lewis and with Jonathan Biss as piano soloist, it juxtaposes disparate moods, dramatic conceits and musical personalities to produce — no surprise — warring sound worlds.
 
True, you can muster sympathy for Mr. Lewis, 32, a native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, and the music director of the Jacksonville Symphony in Florida. He was an assistant conductor of the Philharmonic from 2014 to 2016 and is leading his first subscription concerts with the orchestra.
 
The Andres work is part of a commissioning project organized by Mr. Biss to create sequels of sorts to Beethoven’s five piano concertos, so the two substantial works were undoubtedly visited on Mr. Lewis as a package, leaving little room for creative choices of his own. He was presumably rewarded with a chance to conduct a favorite British work, which he led at David Geffen Hall on Thursday from memory and with obvious affection.
 
And here is a quandary for many such modern sequels, which are all the rage these days, when the paired works share the same program: which to perform first? In this case, whatever connections could be gleaned came after intermission, when Mr. Biss followed the new piece with the Beethoven original.
 
Mr. Biss was excellent in both works, strong through the complexities — what he calls the “composed drunkenness” — of the Andres, and showing an especially fine touch in the Beethoven finale. Mr. Lewis and the orchestra, though notably lacking in principal players, proved deft and flexible partners.