New York Philharmonic Performance at Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center-Review 

Emanuel Ax, Anders Hillborg, Eun Sun Kim, New York Philharmonic Week 23,Photo:Brandon Patoc
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The NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC, Conducted by EUN SUN KIM, with EMANUEL AX, Piano Soloist performed two Scandanavian Offerings: One Old, One New with A Russian Topping Of Concerts, February 22-24,2024

Eun Sun Kim, New York Philharmonic Week 23,Photo:Brandon Patoc

What warms a late February night in Manhattan? A bracing concert at Geffen Hall with New York’s Philharmonic conducted by a young female conductor from South Korea, Eun Sun Kim, and a more mature superstar of the piano, Emanuel Ax, featuring a NY premiere of a concerto written expressly        for him by the Swedish composer, ANDERS HILLBORG. 

Ms. Sun Kim, who may appear at first to be a slight figure approaching the podium, belies that immediately with the firm downbeat of her baton conjuring the sonic force of what is without doubt, the most celebrated, albeit brief compositions, of Finland’s most revered musician, Jean Sibelius. That piece, of course, we now know as FINLANDIA, Op.26, No. 7 from 1899. It was originally a part of a series of musical offerings and first named “Finland Awakes!”, and frankly from the first, it did just that.  

The nation we now know, that has recently been admitted to NATO, to the apparent consternation of the present Kremlin, had been under the yoke of Czarist Russia for innumerable years and the premiere of this work was meant for a benefit of Finland’s Free Press which had been vigorously repressed by Mother Russia. Sound familiar? The work was an instantaneous success everywhere BUT Russia and needed to be billed under such innocuous titles as, “Impromptu” wherever Russian authority ruled until the Scandanavian upstarts were able to decree their freedom thanks to the Russian Revolution in 1917.  

Emanuel Ax, New York Philharmonic Week 23, Photo:Brandon Patoc

The 8-minute piece performed in its mere instrumental guise was articulated by our orchestra with meticulous detail and unwavering authority. One could discern at once why Eun Sun Kim has been named by our “Journal Of Record”, the NY Times, as “Breakout Star in Classical Music.” Since 2021 she’s held the post of Caroline H. Hume Music Director of San Francisco Opera and has already guest conducted several of the most distinguished musical ensembles and opera companies in the world.  

This most beloved of the works of this composer who encompassed the latter part of the 19th century and well into the 20th was enthusiastically received by the nearly full auditorium on Friday night, and I’m sure must have been so the night before and afterwards as well. 

Now we come to a more challenging bit of coverage: that of a New York Premiere debuted in San Francisco, just last October 12th with the San Francisco Symphony led by Esa-Pekka Salonen and written EXPRESSLY for the renowned and increasingly venerated pianist, Emanuel Ax.  It’s actually a piano concerto with a name: The MAX Concerto by the Swedish composer who is about to celebrate his 70th birthday, come May 31st, Anders Hillborg.  

New York Philharmonic Week 23, Photo:Brandon Patoc

 MAX refers to Manny Ax as this truly great musician is known to his friends, and indeed, Mr. Hillborg is unquestionably among them. The piece is meant to be a virtuoso musical appreciation of this disciple of Artur Rubinstein and Isaac Stern and by the apparent enthusiasm and pianistic prowess displayed by this singular soloist, the appreciation is wholly requitted. 

This reviewer is somewhat cowed in venturing his censure regarding how this barely six-month-old offering to international music halls for fear of resembling the boastful 19th century Viennese critic,  Eduard Hanlick,who, although he championed Brahms, defiled Bruckner, and upon first hearing Tchaikovsky’s beloved Violin Concerto, declared it as, “here is music that stinks in the ear!”  

It’s astounding how many egregiously mistaken initial reviews of musical masterpieces have been recorded through the centuries. Therefore, I am loathe to make so fatuous an assessment of this new work, which, although obviously a piece of consummate craft and loving friendship, did not precisely transport this listener to the exhilarating heights one yearns to experience upon hearing a new work, or ANY work that combines the forces of a first-rate soloist and equally adept ensemble. 

It’s an eclectic work, most certainly, where the composer evokes such personages as Bach, Ravel, fellow Scandanavian, Sibelius, with passages of Minimalism and textures intimating electronic music, all the while Mr. Ax floats along the keyboard with a seeming effortlessness that has made him, without question, among the half dozen greatest keyboard artists alive. The virtuosic challenges this composer has provided the soloist are myriad, subtle, overt, and at first stimulating, and perhaps that was and is the combined aesthetic goals the composer and artist for whom it’s dedicated, that have been well met in accordance with their desires. 

 In Mr. Hillborg’s own words: ”The MAX Concerto is cast in one unbroken span comprising episodes of vivid contrast. Grand Piano opens the work with a flourish traversing almost the entire range of the keyboard; the orchestral woodwinds reply with their own leapfrogging arpeggios, before the piano states its jubilant theme. Mist then settles in the form of divided strings. Out of the mist emerges a tinkling Toy Piano.” 

Eun Sun Kim, Emanuel Ax, and the New York Philharmonic Week 23, Photo:Brandon Patoc

The composer’s confidence in this soloist’s humor is reflected in the ensuing passages of Chorales and Echo Chamber to Soft Piano, to Hand Piano displaying a brilliant, jagged passage work plunging into a cadenza exhibiting Mr. Ax’s perfect technique with the orchestra joining the keyboard for a grand passionate statement of the opening theme. Thereby in turns the work moves to recapitulations of Soft Piano, Chorales and Echo Chamber, leading to the sweeping finale of Ascending Piano, and ”a final grand gesture from the soloist gives way to an ending that recedes into the distance.”                                 I cannot refrain from recalling my favorite line from Ira Levin’s play, ’DEATHTRAP” where the frustrated lead, the once famous playwright, Sidney Bruhl remarks: ”Nothing recedes like success.”  

Please forgive me, dear reader, if I appear snarky here, but that was my letdown reaction upon the completion of the albeit brilliant performance by Mr. Ax of this work affectionately provided to him by this adoring musical creator. The work lasted some 21 minutes. Was I engaged? Yes.  Was my companion? Absolutely! But I yearned for so much more, and I dare say so did most of the attendees. Of course, Mr. Ax was lauded with the enthusiasm that his playing invariably warrants. And the general excitement that the living composer was present in the house and called upon the stage by the dedicated held its own drama. 

My companion and I had a charming encounter with Mr. Hillborg at intermission. He could not have been more gracious, nor could I have been more sincere when I looked into his eyes, shook his hand firmly and entreated him,” Keep writing!” He assured us that he shall, and I look forward to further acquainting myself with his unmistakable talent! 

The third and longest piece of the evening was Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Symphony in A Minor, Op. 44 from 1936, revised two years later. What can this reviewer say? Talk about works by revered composers that were tepidly received by the critics at first, even though played by The Philadelphia Orchestra led by no less than Leopold Stowkowski .  

Eun Sun Kim leads the New York Philharmonic Week 23, Photo:Brandon Patoc

This glorious symphony, that has yet to attain the stature of his preceding one but is not nearly as neglected as his initially maligned first, is a highly substantial piece that firmly remained unashamedly in the Romantic sensibilities of this uncompromising melodist who simply would not be reformulated by the avant-garde so prevalent when this work premiered. It’s very much akin to his 4th Piano Concerto, also unappreciated when introduced in the 20’s with that same ensemble and conductor and later in revised form in 1941. 

The three movements:  Lento- Allegro moderato, Adagio ma non troppo,                                                   Allegro vivace- Tempo come prima, Allegro- Allegro vivace- Allegro, were rendered by our Philharmonic under Ms. Sun Kim’s meticulous guidance with an authority that rivals the recording I possess of Mariss Janson’s with  the St. Petersburg Philharmonic , which is to say, as good as I’ve ever heard. 

All in all, a warming night in late February in midtown Manhattan thanks to the talents of those past masters and those happily very much still with us enlivening those fortunate to attend in person our city’s supreme orchestra and its most welcome brilliant guests!  

Photos provided by the NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC

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