For the third time of asking, one of four such concerts, the New York Philharmonic and Jaap van Zweden opened the 2019-20 season, the centerpiece being Knoxville, Samuel Barber’s genial representation of life in the rural American South a century ago, with Kelli O’Hara evocatively singing texts drawn from a James Agee poem.
Philip Glass’s King Lear Overture is rife with agitated rhythms, dense textures and pungent harmonies, laced with jarring percussion. Among the more lyrical moments is a jaunty trumpet melody, and elements typically associated with minimalism include an extended passage of violin figures that never quite reach their apparently intended destination. Long descending and ascending runs lead to the final outburst. Although Glass composed the Overture after having written incidental music to accompany a recent Broadway production of the Shakespeare tragedy, the new work is musically independent of the Broadway score, instead containing thematic material for a possible King Lear opera. Nevertheless, I had the impression that the Overture was not very far removed from the milieu of Broadway.
For Knoxville O’Hara and the Philharmonic performed Barber’s 1950 revision for chamber orchestra of the work he had written for Eleanor Steber two years earlier. Van Zweden’s gentle direction evoked the innocence and glacial pace of life in the heat of a summer evening in the time before World War One. The orchestra played excellently, with the winds especially effective in conveying the languor expressed in O’Hara’s sensitive rendering of Barber’s choice of texts. She adapted subtly as her words alternately portrayed the direct experience of a child and its later recollection in adulthood. O’Hara, a Tony Award winner for The King and I, has previously performed with the Philharmonic in Carousel and My Fair Lady, and continues to shine as she further expands her repertory into the classical realm. Van Zweden was an alert partner, allowing O’Hara great liberty in shaping phrasing.
Van Zweden dug into his choice from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet with unrestrained energy and at times overpowering volume. The Philharmonic was in top form, the strings particularly outstanding portraying the lightning-fast swordplay in ‘The Death of Tybalt’. The relatively few quieter and more lyrical passages were lovely, with highlights including Robert Langevin’s flute in ‘The Child Juliet’, and solos by Anthony McGill on clarinet and Cynthia Phelps on viola in ‘Romeo and Juliet before Parting’.