United States Debussy, Caroline Shaw, Florence Price: Roomful of Teeth (vocal ensemble), New York Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden (conductor), David Geffen Hall, New York City, 23.10.2022. (SRT)
Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Caroline Shaw – Microfictions (US premiere)
Florence Price – Symphony No.4 in D minor
Well, it is official. After sixty years of false starts, frustrated hopes and architectural missteps, the New York Philharmonic finally has a permanent home in Manhattan that is worthy of them. This isn’t the place to retell the story of the ups and downs of their Lincoln Center home: just let me cut a long story short by saying that the rebuild of their David Geffen Hall is a triumph.
The keynote of the new hall is clarity. You can hear everything in the sound, with a presence and focus that is the hallmark of many new halls, but which here sounds particularly focused. Listening to Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune in this setting made it sound like a different piece of music. Played with conscientious beauty by the NY Phil, Debussy’s score remained soft but not at all languid. The winds and horns glowed gently, but the shimmer on the strings felt so present it was as if you could hear every individually articulated note, not just the diaphanous curtain of sound that it normally seems. You can decide for yourself whether that forensic precision suits a piece like the Prélude, but there was no question that it suited their encore, one of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances that sounded so fresh and clean that every crash, twinkle and swoosh was as bright as a button.
It says something about the NY Phil that they haven’t chosen to open the David Geffen with European repertoire staples, though a Beethoven Nine is coming soon. Instead, the focus in their opening concerts has been on American composers, mostly newly written music that the orchestra has commissioned. Caroline Shaw’s Microfictions, for example, is part of a project to commemorate the centenary of women gaining the right to vote in the USA. Shaw’s music, written for the orchestra and the eight singers of her own sharply named group Roomful of Teeth, was inspired by a series of miniature stories put out on Twitter during the pandemic, hence the title. It is a suite of five pieces, each of which is a miniature tone poem, and they work very well as a set ranging from the gentle opening to the pounding energy of the conclusion. Shaw’s music for the orchestra is tonal, persuasive and very effective, while her writing for the vocal ensemble ranges from consonant sweetness to unmusical vocalisations. Either way, the pairing works very well, and sounded great in this space, though it is hard to know how far the hall flatters it with its state-of-the-art amplification system for the voices.
Thanks mainly to the good offices (and recording contract) of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the music of Florence Price is much better known now than it was even just a couple of years back. I have never quite been on board with the approval given to her Symphony No.3, but I found this performance of Symphony No.4 instantly appealing. There is a lovely sunniness to the sound, with an almost cinematic sweep to the first movement’s main theme that has a John Williams-ish joy in a simple tune and directness of approach. The symphony’s slow movement mirrors the contours of the Largo from Dvořák’s New World so precisely that it feels like a homage and, as in the Third Symphony, Price includes a foot-tapping Juba dance as the third movement. Music Director Jaap van Zweden paid the piece the compliment of taking it seriously, and the bright sheen of the sound gave it a certain sense of movie-star glamour that helped the sound enormously.
By the end of the evening, however, I was beginning to wonder if the new auditorium could make just about anything sound good. Make no mistake: the hall is the star here. The orchestra and its team seem finally to have cured the jinx by building a hall that feels relaxed and sounds great, with clarity and precision across every frequency. New Yorkers should be pretty pleased with what they have got on their hands.