Memo to the New York Philharmonic: Louder Isn’t Better | Modern Society of USA

Memo to the New York Philharmonic: Louder Isn’t Better

Memo to the New York Philharmonic: Louder Isn’t Better

The pianist Gerald Moore, one of the great accompanists of the 20th century, called his memoir “Am I Too Loud?”

It’s a question members of the New York Philharmonic should ask themselves on a regular basis. Gentlemen of the brass section: I’m talking to you. Conductors might want to pull up a chair, too.

The Philharmonic’s sound has taken on a hard edge, disrupting some of music’s most glorious moments. Tutti eruptions that felt crude rather than grand blighted the orchestra’s two most recent programs at David Geffen Hall. On Jan. 3, Paavo Jarvi led Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, a Sibelius tone poem and Ravel’s Suite No. 2 from “Daphnis et Chloé.” This weekend’s program, which opened on Thursday under the direction of Jakub Hrusa, included Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.”

In both programs there was much to like, even to be thrilled by. The strings can be a marvel of cohesion and warmth. Individual solos — of the flutist Robert Langevin in the Ravel, or the concertmaster Frank Huang in “Scheherazade” — are exquisitely nuanced. But dynamic peaks tend to ring out harshly aggressive, with a sound that’s big without being full. Put delicately, fortissimos are not this orchestra’s forte.

In the Dvorak concerto, the cellist Gautier Capuçon battled valiantly to assert himself against an ensemble that seemed intent on belittling him. His tone sounded tight and strained at first, but over the course of the first movement began to glow; his playing became eloquently assured.

This is heroic music that builds pathos and excitement from the contrast of solo cello and large orchestra playing, yes, fortissimo. But while that Italian term translates as “loudest,” brawn should be matched by character. Dvorak marks these moments “grandioso.” They should be an exhilarating amplification of the cello-protagonist. Here, the ensemble obliterated him.

In the hard-driving “Danse Générale” that concludes Ravel’s suite, there were more sledgehammer moments in which volume swallowed up color and complexity. (A shame, since the light-dappled opening “Daybreak” movement held glimpses of the Philharmonic’s playing at its most beguiling.) And in the start of the Rimsky-Korsakov on Thursday — this movement marked “maestoso,” or majestically — the huge brass statements burst out with saber-rattling strength but little majesty.

The most satisfying part of that evening was the Prokofiev concerto with the ebullient pianist Simon Trpceski, who gave a performance that encompassed cartoonish humor and hushed lyricism. Mr. Hrusa is a charismatic conductor with a particular knack, evident in “Scheherazade,” for minutely shaping a string melody so that an entire section appears to play with the same effortless freedom as a soloist. Mr. Hrusa also managed to husband the dynamic forces in the Rimsky-Korsakov so that the most voluminous louds came near the end. But there, once again, the sound lacked the necessary roundness and texture to support the decibel burn.

As the orchestra adapts to its new music director, Jaap van Zweden, who returns to the podium next week, its sound will surely evolve. The ability of a group of musicians to produce earth-shattering loudness with purely acoustic means is one of the joys of classical music, and a selling point in an age in which volume is cheap and controlled by a dial. It’s worth getting these fortissimos right.

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