Observers of the New York Philharmonic who love new music were quick to lament the end of the Contact! series, contemporary-minded concerts started by the Philharmonic’s former music director, Alan Gilbert. But this season, the initiatives created to fill the gap — two series, “Nightcap” and “Sound On” — have proven roughly as consistent in quality as Contact! was.
On Sunday at the Appel Room, at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Philharmonic fielded a “Sound On” program that was one of its most entertaining new-music shows of the past couple of years. Called “Threads,” it was related — at least a little — to last week’s premiere of “Fire in my mouth,” a new oratorio by Julia Wolfe inspired by the 1911 Triangle shirtwaist factory fire. Sunday’s concert was organized around composers who have spent some time in America. Close enough (if you’re generous).
[Read our review of the premiere of “Fire in my mouth.”]
Stronger than any connection to Ms. Wolfe’s work was the level of the music selected by the host and curator of “Sound On,” the violist Nadia Sirota. Among the highlights was “At the Kansas City Chinese New Year Concert,” a compact but theatrically astute string quartet by Chen Yi, who has long taught at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The first movement has an inviting, celebratory air. The second uses long-held tones and vibrato effects to evoke, according to Ms. Chen’s program note, hand-pulled noodle making.
The concert put some Philharmonic players in intriguing spotlights. The pianist Eric Huebner was arresting, whether teasing out the Dowland-derived melody of Thomas Adès’s solo “Darknesse Visible,” or pulsing away with the machine-like rhythms of “Bulb,” a piano trio by Donnacha Dennehy.
Another string quartet — “Chambers,” by Marcos Balter — was, for me, the standout. Mr. Balter’s music tends to be both rigorous in construction and playful in overall effect. In his program note, he wrote of his interest in creating an aural illusion of forces larger than those on stage. He achieved this in the delirium of the third movement, which seemed to draw from the static opening movement and the more staggered patterns of the second — while adding something newly mystical. I wondered what he might do with the full forces of the Philharmonic at his disposal.
The repertory at the orchestra’s main stage concert on Wednesday evening at David Geffen Hall was rather less contemporary. Which is not to say that inspiration was absent. Half the program was every bit as rousing as the “Sound On” event. The pianist Emanuel Ax’s turn in Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra had elegant energy running through it, as did Jaap van Zweden’s approach to Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 (“Jupiter”).
In Stravinsky’s succession of instrumental color pairings, Mr. Ax had a knack for blending with the Philharmonic players while still punching his sound through. The composer’s love for then-new jazz textures was evident, and appropriately jaunty. But crucially, the performance wasn’t jokey. This was caprice with just the right amount of edge. In the “Jupiter” Symphony, Mr. van Zweden found smart ways to assert his personality without losing the overall shape of the piece — as when he allowed bass-heavy orchestral balances to bloom (ever so briefly) during the inner movements.
Less gripping were the performances that opened the concert. Mr. Ax clearly delights in Haydn. But a sense of discovery was absent during this version of the Piano Concerto No. 11 in D. And while Mozart’s first symphony, written when he was 8, makes for an obvious complement to the “Jupiter,” his final symphony, programming the early work can also seem like a frittering away of the orchestra’s time on stage, merely for the benefit of a cute idea.