The New York Philharmonic’s current program is a tale of two women: a violinist and a composer.
On the first half of the concert Thursday evening at David Geffen Hall, Janine Jansen was a radiant soloist in Brahms’s Violin Concerto, renewing that war horse with subtly ardent playing. After intermission, Tania León, 76, presented her first-ever piece for the full Philharmonic, and rose to her belated debut with music of unsettled understatement and quietly ominous power.
By now it is no surprise when Ms. Jansen provides a performance of sensitivity and elegance. But it nevertheless feels like a gift each time, especially coming from an artist who has lately struggled with — and canceled because of — a left arm injury. She has only appeared with the Philharmonic twice before, and not since 2011, so it is a joy to have her back.
Ms. Jansen doesn’t overplay or press after effect. Her intensity accrues almost imperceptibly over the course of this 40-minute concerto; she builds urgency slowly, by sustaining her silvery tone — even at a whisper — and by pulling back to let voices from the orchestra, conducted by Jaap van Zweden, amplify her line. (Among the world’s star soloists, she’s as keen a listener, as adept and intimate a chamber partner, as it gets.)
This was supremely restrained playing, though not without meaty muscle in double stops. Her first-movement cadenza was a dance that had one foot in an aristocratic court and the other in the country. Her trills alone — varied in speed and color, from fluttery delicacy to slightly heavier, more sensuous — were a master class. The overall effect was of a coiled energy that kept expanding because it was kept so controlled. Surely this was one of the most memorable star turns of the Philharmonic’s season so far.
Ms. León was a new-music adviser to the Philharmonic in the 1990s, but it didn’t end up playing her work then. The orchestra is making up for lost time as part of Project 19, a multiyear initiative to commission 19 female composers to honor the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which extended the vote to women.
“Stride,” Ms. León’s 15-minute submission, was, she said in a recent interview, inspired by the courage of Susan B. Anthony and Ms. León’s progressive grandmother. A soft whisper of violins yields to sighing, drooping sounds throughout the strings, then forthright brass fanfares begin; they recur throughout the piece, a kind of periodic annunciation.
A jauntier section, with some wildly squiggling, jazzy wind solos, is eventually weighed down by a trudging undercurrent, a sense of funeral beneath the party. The pace quickens, then slumps back into a seething quivering. Bells sound at the end, with a West African beat shuffling alongside — a reminder, Ms. León said from the stage before the performance, that black women were excluded from the right that was granted by the 19th Amendment.
“Stride” — which Ms. León described as being about bounding forward — seems an odd title for a piece that is, beautifully, without much sense of forward motion. And it was even odder to follow this ultimately muted, hauntingly inconclusive work with Hurricane “Rosenkavalier”: the popular suite drawn from that Strauss opera, given an all too forceful performance here that swept “Stride” off the stage.
What could have made a better pairing than loud Viennese waltzes? If Mr. van Zweden wanted razzle-dazzle, perhaps something by Gershwin or Bernstein — the kind of bumptious American music to which Ms. León looks back, with loving yet wary eyes. Or Ellington. Or Ives, a precursor to her complex layerings. Or Janacek, who deployed similar brass fanfares for his own explorations of nationhood.
The Philharmonic finally programmed Ms. León. But it could have served her better.
New York Philharmonic
This program continues through Tuesday at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center; 212-875-5656, nyphil.org.
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