Conductor Makes the Old New and the New Newer

David Robertson
The New York Times

A few years back, when several major American orchestras were searching for
music directors, the American conductor David Robertson was an intriguing
candidate. That he was a comprehensive musician and a flawless technician
was obvious. That he could commandingly conduct any demanding score by
Pierre Boulez or Elliott Carter was unquestionable.

But was he too radical to run a major orchestra? Could he excel in the
standard repertory? Accommodate star soloists? Put together programs that
were both appealing and challenging?

Those who still have such questions should report to Avery Fisher Hall to
hear the remaining performances of the exciting program Mr. Robertson
conducted on Wednesday night with the New York Philharmonic. There was just
one unfamiliar contemporary work, Gyorgy Ligeti's "Concert Romanesc," a
Philharmonic first. Most of the evening was devoted to three staples:
Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony, Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the
superb pianist Emanuel Ax as soloist, and Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony.

It's hard to know why these diverse works combined to make such a
compelling program, or what linked them, other than that all four were
written by composers in their 20's. Still, whether conducting music that is
seldom played or music that is played too often for its own good, Mr.
Robertson makes everything seem fresh and startling.\

Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 in D, the "Classical," is often treated like an
impish romp, a Mozartean pastiche. In his crisp performance Mr. Robertson
seemed intent on bringing out the modernism of the score, composed in
1916-17. He reined in the tempo of the opening Allegro just enough to allow
the curious intricacies of the score to come through: the tart harmonies,
the zig-zagging inner voices, the obsessively repeated ostinato patterns
that seem funny at first, then start to sound strange. The Gavotte and the
rousing Molto vivace finale have seldom sounded as daring as they did in
this vigorous and nuanced reading.

The 19-year-old Chopin did not know much about writing for the orchestra
when he began composing his Concerto in F minor. But Mr. Robertsonmade the
most of the orchestral music, bringing out the fidgety cello and bass line
in the opening orchestral music and balancing chords so that the richness
of Chopin's harmony obscured the thinness of the scoring. Mr. Ax played
with exquisite lyricism, pearly tone and a deep sensitivity to the music's
melancholy. For all the rippling brilliance of his pianism, every gesture,
every scampering run or melodic embellishment had meaning.

Mr. Ligeti's work, composed in 1951 and revised in 1996, dates from his
formative years in Hungary, when he was under the influence of Bartok. Yet
for all its folkloric lyricism and energy, there are already signs in the
music of the bracing modernism that has characterized the mature work of
this living genius.

Yet the vibrant, lucid and rhythmically relentless account of Mendelssohn's
"Italian" Symphony that Mr. Robertson conducted had that work sounding more
cutting edge, in a sense, than Mr. Ligeti's. Mr. Robertson becomes the
music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra next fall. Lucky St.

Additional performancesof this program are scheduled for tonight and