A Barenboim Protege Makes a Dazzling Debut

United StatesUnited States Lindberg, Stravinsky, Prokofiev: David Bilger (trumpet), Philadelphia Orchestra / Lahav Shani (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 23.3.2018. (BJ)

Christian Lindberg – Akbank Bunka for trumpet and chamber orchestra
Stravinsky – Suite from L’Oiseau de feu (1919 version)
Prokofiev – Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 100

Armed with two powerful warhorse-type scores from the 20th-century orchestral repertoire, a dazzling new conducting talent took possession of the podium for his Philadelphia Orchestra debut, and gave every indication of taking possession also of an obviously captivated audience’s collective heart.

Still ten months short of his 30th birthday, and already principal guest conductor of the Vienna Symphony and chief conductor designate of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in succession to Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Tel Aviv native Lahav Shani will become music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 2020. If Zubin Mehta, who has held that post to widespread acclaim since 1977, is obviously a hard act to follow, Shani (whose conducting mentor has been Daniel Barenboim) showed himself with blockbuster performances of the 1919 suite from The Firebird and of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony to be fully prepared for the challenge.

His technical assurance and welcome freedom from affectation drew whiplash rhythms and sonorities of positively astonishing richness of tone from the tuttis that abound in both of those works, and he also presided in relaxed and unobtrusive fashion over some superb woodwind solos, including a relatively rare opportunity to shine for co-principal bassoon Mark Gigliotti.

There are a number of different ways for a conductor to make an impact. In the years when I was music critic of the Chicago Daily News, I found the Chicago Symphony’s music director Georg Solti to be a brilliant performer, whereas the principal guest conductor he had appointed, Carlo Maria Giulini, was more than that: he was a great musician. Thrilling as Solti’s interpretations often were, he very rarely told me anything about a work that I didn’t already know, but Giulini did that on practically every occasion when he was in town.

As far as Shani is concerned, I don’t feel ready to make such a distinction on the basis of his Stravinsky and Prokofiev. I shall know more when I hear the conductor’s take on the great Austro-German classics ranging from Haydn and Mozart to Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms. But everything that the Stravinsky and Prokofiev scores allowed him to do he did superbly. He was also meticulous in support of principal trumpet David Bilger’s strongly characterized Philadelphia Orchestra premiere of an agreeably unpretentious piece by the brilliant Swedish trombonist-composer Christian Lindberg. With a title that juxtaposes Turkish and Japanese words, Akbank Bunka provides the soloist with plenty of opportunities for crisp and forceful playing, and Bilger took them to unfailingly musical effect.

Bernard Jacobson

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