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Review: At the Philharmonic, a Conductor Argues With Passion

The opening of the New York Philharmonic’s concert on Friday took a step toward solving one problem while exposing another.

Wang Lu’s “Surge,” given its world premiere at the top of the show, is the product of an initiative by the League of American Orchestras to commission new works from six composers — all women — that will be guaranteed performances from ensembles across the country.

So far, so good. Too often, premieres have short rehearsal periods; then, unless future performances are lined up, or unless soloists champion concertos written for them, the music can easily disappear. The League’s project at least gives contemporary work a fighting chance at longevity.

I hope, however, that the other premieres to come out of this initiative don’t have the running time of “Surge.” At a mere six minutes, it was shorter than all but one movement in the classics that followed at David Geffen Hall on Friday: Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Sibelius’s Second Symphony.

Larger commissions are certainly possible. A week ago, Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Catamorphosis” took up the first 20 minutes of the Philharmonic’s program; last season in Los Angeles, an entire evening was given over to Thomas Adès’s 100-minute “Dante.” Imagine the League’s group of orchestras nurturing music on the scale of symphony. Then they might tackle what is perhaps the problem of world premieres: that, as brief curtain-raisers unrelated to the rest of a concert, they tend to just read as perfunctory exercises in box-ticking.

That said, Wang’s piece has the elements of an enormous score skillfully accordioned into the shape of a much smaller one. From the flourish of its first measure, “Surge” is a restless succession of swinging gestures, martial flashes and exercises in disparate, assertive voices coming in and out of focus, then occasionally finding common ground in a tutti mass. It all had the feel of a TikTok binge: an endless and entrancing stream of much of the same in short, slightly different bursts. The music ended before it became exhausting — but, like TikTok, left you wanting more.

At the podium was Dalia Stasevska, in her second appearance with the Philharmonic. Her debut last season proved her bona fides in contemporary music, with a whirlwind trio of works by Missy Mazzoli, Anthony Davis and John Adams. Friday’s premiere was equally impressive; Stasevska led the Wang with verve, commitment and, above all, clarity (despite distractingly wide-armed conducting mannerisms that could qualify as a cardio workout).

The Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, a longtime outspoken critic of Russia, performed Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in a gown design to resemble the Ukrainian flag.Credit…Chris Lee

The rest of the program was another kind of test: standard repertory. For the Tchaikovsky, she was joined by the Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, in characteristically elegant and modestly electrifying form, with a focused, penetrating sound. In this piece, the orchestra mostly plays a supporting role to the singingly Romantic solo part. But ensemble moments were nevertheless distinct; the introduction alone seemed to inhale and exhale its phrases, and the cellos’ freely beating fifths in the finale set the tone for the rubato and joyously dancing liveliness that Batiashvili has previously brought to folk-inflected music by the likes of Szymanowski.

It was the kind of performance that, without trying to, had audience members roaring with applause after the first movement, then, at the end, immediately rising for a standing ovation — one of the most passionate I’ve heard at Geffen Hall this season. They had a similar response to the Sibelius, which here was anxiously brisk and occasionally furious.

The symphony can come off as an exercise in motivic obsession on the level of Beethoven’s Fifth, and even has that work’s style of a soaringly ecstatic finale. But Stasevska’s heavily opinionated interpretation was unusual from the start; the slurred tenuto phrases of the strings, rather than gentle waves approaching a shore, were a ride along a bumpy road. With a liberal treatment of tempo markings, passages were pushed and pulled, some relished and others simply rushed. The last movement was an uncertain triumph, with a suggestion of continuing struggle, until Stasevska savored the radiance of the closing measures’ chords.

Throughout, it was difficult to avoid seeing this idiosyncratic account as a personal one. Stasevska lives in Finland but was born in Ukraine, which she has been fervently supporting — through fund-raising, through driving trucks packed with supplies across its border — since Russia’s invasion nearly a year ago. Batiashvili, too, has long been outspoken against Russia and the classical musicians who have benefited from its leadership, especially the conductor Valery Gergiev. On Friday, she performed wearing a gown in the stark blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag.

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was written in the glory days of Imperial Russia — an empire that included Finland as a grand duchy subjected, by the time Sibelius’s Second Symphony premiered in 1902, to severe policies of Russification. Sibelius denied as much, but listeners heard in this work an outcry for national pride and independence. To them, the music could never be met with a neutral response. And it’s just as impossible to have one to Stasevska, neither to her life nor to her passionately argued performance.

New York Philharmonic

This program repeats through Sunday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org.

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