Charles Ives’s highly evocative Central Park in the Dark (1906), a companion to The Unanswered Question, purports to convey the sounds of nature and the happenings one would have heard while sitting on a park bench on a hot summer night in the late-1800s. Soft strings representing the quiet darkness are interrupted in turn by the echoes (among others) of singers, a streetcar, fire engine, parade and, most strikingly, a splendidly chaotic mix of popular music of the time, with two pianos pounding out the 1899 Tin Pan Alley tune, ‘Hello! Ma Baby’. Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic delivered a confident and vivid account, marked by gently atmospheric realization in the tranquil passages, and delightfully appropriate roughness in the more raucous moments.
The Wound-Dresser, John Adams’s setting of a fragment from Walt Whitman’s highly graphic and intimate poem about his experience as a volunteer, tending to wounded soldiers in military hospitals during the American Civil War, made a strong impact. Though markedly different in subject from the Ives, and more harmonically solidified, it shares a similar nostalgic mood. With his darkly-rounded baritone, Matthias Goerne – singing with clarity, feeling and refinement – gave a powerfully moving rendition of Whitman’s poignant verses. The tender solos from concertmaster Frank Huang were superb, and Christopher Martin’s trumpet was melodically vibrant.
Following intermission came a bold and brilliantly shaped reading of Brahms’s First Symphony, in which van Zweden’s robust conducting drew a rich and colorful response from the Philharmonic – radiant brass, sumptuous strings, graceful and shimmering woodwinds, pulsating timpani — to make this a memorable experience. The impetus and understated but persuasive pacing of the first movement highlighted the compassion of the graceful Andante and the sunny, lyrical freedom of the third movement, before unleashing the outsized feelings and power of the Finale. This was a finely integrated performance which most effectively balanced the poetry of the music with its punch.