The Toe-Tapping Starts at the Podium

David Robertson
The New York Times

By Vivien Schweitzer

The balletic movements and springy step of David Robertson as he led the New York Philharmonic in works by Ravel, Debussy, Ginastera and George Benjamin on Thursday at Avery Fisher Hall seemed appropriate for the dance theme that permeated the program.

Mr. Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and a champion of contemporary music, opened the concert with “Dance Figures (Nine choreographic scenes for orchestra)” — a recent work by Mr. Benjamin, a British composer who studied with Messiaen.

“Dance Figures,” set by the Belgian choreographer Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker and performed as a ballet in 2006 at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, is an expanded transcription of “Piano Figures,” which Mr. Benjamin composed as a series of short pieces for children.

Mr. Robertson led a tightly wrought performance that aptly revealed the contrasting personality of each of the nine short movements.

The first section, “Spell,” unfolds in the high strings. “Interruptions,” the fourth movement, features dramatic woodwind and brass flourishes, with a chorale linking it to the viola solo and muted trumpets of “Song.” “Olicantus,” the introspective eighth movement, comprises a canon between bass clarinets and cellos. “Hammers” and “Whirling” (the sixth and final movements) live up to their titles with energetically colorful spirit.

The R-rated plot of Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” staged by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes with erotic choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky in the title role, provoked a scandal at its premiere in 1912. Mr. Robertson conducted a beautifully nuanced interpretation that highlighted the languorous, shimmering textures of this famous work, beginning with the evocative flute solo, gracefully rendered by Robert Langevin.

The jazz overtones of Ravel’s one-movement Concerto for the Left Hand initially irked Paul Wittgenstein, the Austrian pianist who commissioned the piece after he lost his right arm while fighting at the Russian front during World War I. The British pianist Nicolas Hodges offered an exciting performance of the work, whose pianistic textures are so dense it seems as if two hands must be at work. He offered an ideal balance between virtuosity and introspection, deftly supported by the orchestra.

Mr. Robertson sashayed on the podium during a vivacious rendition of Ginastera’s Dances from the Ballet “Estancia,” a lively conclusion to the evening.