New York State of Mind

By Wise, Brian | Strings, September 2017 | Go to article overview

New York State of Mind


Wise, Brian, Strings


Cynthia Phelps pauses to consider the uncertainties facing the New York Philharmonic, an orchestra she joined as principal violist in 1992, and which in the past 12 months has seen more upheaval than at any other point in her quarter-century tenure.

"It's both daunting and exciting, terrifying but thrilling," she says. "The players chose Jaap van Zweden. We've liked what we've seen, what we've worked with. We've seen and worked with Deborah Borda. I think we need to hold onto that and look toward working together."

Phelps of course, refers to the two individuals whose arrival will profoundly shake up the current order. One is Deborah Borda, the transformative president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 2000 who stunned the music business in March by announcing her return to the orchestra she ran in the 1990s. The other is Jaap van Zweden, a stocky, 57-year-old Dutchman who is in his tenth and final season as music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra-a tenure defined by soaring playing standards and moments of friction.

The return of Borda, a 67-year-old native New Yorker, appears to have halted a recent exodus of senior executives that threatened to derail plans for a much-needed renovation of David Geffen Hall, the New York Phil's home. The project, which is expected to cost at least $500 million, will displace the ensemble for two seasons, starting as soon as 2019. Where it will perform during the renovation-and how it will maintain its Lincoln Center–focused audience in the process-remains to be seen.

"I do feel a little bit of trepidation about the hall renovation," admits Carter Brey, principal cellist since 1996. "Any time you remove the comfort level of a known venue for a subscription audience, you're going to lose people. But perhaps it will freshen people's perception of us, as a cultural institution tied to the city."

Indeed, in a metropolis that takes pride in being a global center of theater, fashion, dining, and visual art, the New York Philharmonic is, to some extent, treated as an afterthought. The New Yorker and the New York Times published columns last spring praising the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the latter publication calling it the "most important orchestra in the world." In van Zweden, New York won't be getting a youthful, Spanish-speaking celebrity figure, in the mold of Los Angeles' Gustavo Dudamel, but rather a hard-driving, European kapellmeister. But cultural relevancy can be shaped by several factors. New York Phil string players believe that if the orchestra delivers more visceral excitement and unanimity onstage, the word will get out. Some also hope for a renewed focus on masterworks by Brahms and Schumann, Mahler and Strauss, which they feel have been neglected.

"We've not had as much meat-andpotatoes repertoire as maybe we should have had," says Phelps. "We've gone through so many phases as an orchestra. We've gone through a pretty heavy phase of presenting a lot of new music, which has been great. I think it would be nice to get back to some of the core repertoire."

Sheryl Staples, principal associate concertmaster, echoes this point. "We really did want a music director who could nurture our core repertoire," she says.

Brey calls the late-Romantic repertoire "our stock in trade," but frames the matter somewhat differently. What the New York Phil needs, he maintains, is a conductor who can jolt the ensemble from its interpretive comfort zone. "This orchestra can turn in an excellent performance of a piece like the Mahler Second Symphony or the late Tchaikovsky symphonies with minimal guidance from the podium," he says. "It's a doubleedged sword for conductors, because they're presented with a ready-made high level of performance with which to work and it can be difficult to divert the orchestra from that."

Van Zweden's predecessor, Alan Gilbert, made new and lesser-known music a higher priority during his eight-year tenure, reinstating the composer-in-residence position (now held by Esa-Pekka Salonen), launching the Contact! …

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