Review: At the Philharmonic, a Guest Challenges Common Wisdom

The conductor Nathalie Stutzmann, who made a hotly anticipated debut with the New York Philharmonic on Wednesday, has had a skyrocketing career. Most notably, she started this season as the music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra — making her, regrettably, the lone female conductor among the 25 largest American orchestras. Women comprise about half of all orchestral players nationally and even outnumber men in the playing ranks of the Philharmonic.

Many orchestra musicians reportedly love Stutzmann — who first made her name as a contralto and has recorded as a singer — for her deeply felt opinions and direct communication style. At the Philharmonic, she laid out her bona fides by beginning her program with Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” overture. (She will be making her debut at the Bayreuth Festival in August with this opera, so Wednesday’s performance felt like a bit of a preview.) She led it with a singer’s innate sense of phrasing and generous expanse; the orchestra seemed happy to luxuriate with her across every small hill and valley of the score.

The most arresting work on the program was Prokofiev’s sprawling Sinfonia Concertante, a piece of constantly shifting moods that demands only the most virtuosic of soloists: It’s considered one of the most technically challenging, and exhausting, works written for cello.

The Sinfonia Concertante has never quite found a home in the repertory, though Prokofiev revised it extensively for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich. Before Wednesday, it had not been performed by the Philharmonic in two decades; the last time was with Rostropovich at the podium.

But the piece has a profound champion in Alisa Weilerstein, the soloist this week. She is an artist who adroitly channels fierce work with her penetrating, brilliant sound — her performances of works by Kodaly and Shostakovich provide ample proof — and she made a compelling case for the Prokofiev. She dispatched every technical test with astonishing ease and visceral joy, and took obvious pleasure in the music’s often sardonic humor.

It wasn’t such an easy match for Stutzmann, however, who emphasized pleasant piquancy over pointed commentary, and carefully burnished the work’s rough-hewn edges. The final movement has plenty of snarl and grit, and ends with a triumphant chord that is more frequently interpreted as thumb-your-nose sneering than exultant exclamation; instead, Stutzmann had the Philharmonic musicians land on it as delicately as a troupe of ballerinas.

The orchestra was on more familiar terrain in Dvorak’s “New World”; this is, after all, the orchestra that premiered the extremely familiar work. And Stutzmann was a charming guide. She slowed down to let the audience appreciate minute, inner-voice details that they may well have otherwise missed, but she also hustled by some cherished landmark melodies. At other points, she took an overly literal interpretation of the score. I don’t recall ever hearing such a foursquare interpretation of the Largo theme, a tune meant to evoke Black spirituals that became more familiar as the melody of “Goin’ Home.”

Stutzmann’s idiosyncrasies occasionally veered close to affectations. Who knew that the string chords that punctuate the brasses’ introduction to the theme at the beginning of the fourth movement were more important than the theme itself? On the other hand, Stutzmann is a conductor who certainly knows how to challenge common wisdom, making for an intensely absorbing evening.

New York Philharmonic

This program repeats through Friday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan;

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