Hearing a Classical Score With a Contemporary Ear

10.25.08
David Robertson, Leonidas Kavakos
The New York Times

The conductor David Robertson, who is taking the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra to new levels of excellence and adventurousness as its music director, has presented many exciting programs with the New York Philharmonic as a regular guest over the years. Yet on Thursday night he received a curiously tepid ovation from the Philharmonic audience for his performance of Brahms's Third Symphony, the last work in a program that also offered a Mozart symphony and Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 2.

As riveted as I was by Mr. Robertson's Brahms, I was not entirely surprised that the audience response seemed restrained. The almost anti-Romantic approach he took to the piece might have disconcerted many listeners. A champion of contemporary music, Mr. Robertson seemed determined to reclaim the Brahms symphony as an ingenious and exploratory score.

Many conductors milk the Romantic fervor of the assertive and mercurial first movement, which can lead to performances weighted down with expressive intensity. Mr. Robertson adopted a bracing, vibrant tempo. The music unfolded in long, clear arcs of phrasing, with sweep and vigor. He brought striking clarity to the orchestral textures.

But what mattered more was what you might call the grammatical clarity of the performance, which allowed the direction of the phrases and the architectonic structure to come through. It makes sense that a conductor so adept at executing the complex meters of contemporary music would make every syncopation, offbeat accent and rhythmic intricacy in this Brahms score so precise and telling.

The theme of the second movement, a beguiling Andante, first heard as a subdued chorale, was a model of simplicity and grace. Yet as the movement progressed, Mr. Robertson's ear for the unusual unearthed ambiguities beneath the idyllic surface, as in a midpoint passage when a succession of two-note figures stack up to create pungent, almost radical harmonies.

In the third movement, with its surging melody for melting strings, Mr. Robertson drew lucid and beautifully nuanced playing from the Philharmonic. And the precision and subtlety in the episodic finale, which ends in resignation after an arduous workout, were impressive throughout.

The program began with a lively and transparent account of Mozart's youthful three-movement Symphony No. 34 in C. The vitality of the playing came from keeping tempos in check and allowing time for details to emerge, as in the bustling streams of triplets for strings in the finale, where every note spoke.

The soloist in the Bartok concerto was the violinist Leonidas Kavakos. Over the last 15 years this dynamic musician, born in Athens in 1967, has emerged as one of the most accomplished violinists before the public. With Mr. Robertson's ready support, Mr. Kavakos conveyed the rhapsodic flights, endless variety and subtle blend of folkloric tunes with modernistic wildness in this major 1938 work. He dispatched the virtuosic challenges with a cool command that paradoxically enhanced the bravura excitement. At least this performance roused the audience to a long ovation.