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Electrifying Fingers and Baton

New York
Wu Tsai Theater, David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
02/22/2024 -  & February 23, 24, 2024
Jean Sibelius: Finlandia, Opus 26
Anders Hillborg: Piano Concerto No. 2 (“The MAX Concerto”)
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Opus 44

Emanuel Ax (Pianist)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Eun Sun Kim (Conductor)

E. S. Kim (© Kim Tae‑hwan)

I write pieces because fantastic musicians ask me to, The ‘MAX Concerto’ was written to reflect the exuberance and geniality of this outstanding pianist.
Anders Hillborg

Electric? Electrifying? Volcanic?

How difficult to describe the galvanizing New York Philharmonic review by the young Korean Eun Sun Kim! Presently Music Director of the San Francisco Opera, the Seoul- and Stuttgart-trained conductor has made the rounds of virtually every European orchestra. And for New Yorkers, she was a revelation.

Ms. Kim practically ran on stage, elevated the baton, and immediately–immediately–thrilled with those growling first notes of Finlandia. She didn’t linger on the chorale, but attacked every note as though it was the last one. The Rachmaninoff Third Symphony may have its tender, schmaltzy moments, but one wouldn’t have known it with Ms. Kim’s constant driving rhythms.

Still, one must mention a caveat here. The two bookend pieces called for lots of brass, drums, bells, and the impulsive leadership of Ms. Kim. How she would do with Mozart or Brahms or Schubert is yet to be revealed. Yet I would go for miles for the opportunity.

Or the opening Sibelius. The complete Finlandia has a sad reputation. Is this a potboiler? A patriotic turgidity? Not under the baton of Ms. Kim. This was smoldering, dark and–knowing the composer’s ethos–almost mythical. The New York Phil low brass rumbled and let loose. The central tune was pushed ahead, and had a medieval soul. And the end was simply breathtaking.

Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony was more complicated to comprehend. The composer might have sounded archaic in 1936, a patrician Romantic, gently lulled by writing in his Swiss villa.

Yet this hardly bothered Eun Sun Kim. She knew that those first notes by oboe and bassoon were not so much mysterious as a tattoo for the entire symphony. Whether the composer’s intention or not, Ms. Kim never gave way to melancholy. In the first movement, that climax was spine‑chilling with a disembodied horn chant. But this was no Mahler climax. The end was a shadowy version of the opening motto.

The slow movement was a challenge, to make fast and slow sections jell. Ms. Kim couldn’t quite persuade us of her adagios. She was all for the blasting fast sections. And almost reluctantly let those flaccid last measures take their place.

The finale was her unassailable triumph. Her movements were as passionate as the sounds of the New York Phil.

Was this the real Rachmaninoff? The notes projected both excitement and a romantic lull, but her conducting kept the orchestra so sharp, the attacks so heroic, that one visualized Rachmaninoff as a 19th Century revolutionary.

A. Hillborg, E. Ax

The centerpiece of the concert was Anders Hillborg’s Second Piano Concerto, dedicated to and tough enough for Emanuel Ax. Thus the subtitle “The MAX Concerto”. Capital letters obligatory.

Mr. Hillborg is one of Sweden’s most important composers, and for good reason. For one thing, his music is the antithesis of his landsman Alan Pettersson. The latter was morose, lonely, tonally claustrophobic, in his single movement‑long symphonies.

Mr. Hillborg is the ultimate opposite. Quirky, extrovert, unafraid to dispense with particular “schools” or appellations. And while this Concerto was in a single 21‑minute movement, he divided that up into nine eccentric titles.

No, I didn’t follow or wish to follow Mr. Hillborg’s program descriptions of “Grand Piano” or “Toy Piano” or “Chorales and Echo Chamber” or “Mist”. For then I would have missed Emanuel Ax at his dazzling best.

Mr. Hillborg evidently could have described the movement adhesions. Instead, I was hypnotized (as always) by Emanuel Ax’s piano magic. Every digital technique in the universe was used here. Quadruple fortefortissimo octaves, blurring quantum‑paced trills, ten‑finger chords hustling into spatial repetitions, pounding like thunder, then working in a Chopin-like few measures of tonality.

Whatever one thought of the piece itself, Emanuel Ax–modestly shuffling onto the stage, with a “Hi. If you don’t mind, I’m gonna play the piano” insouciance–gave a new meaning to the word legerdemain.

His performance was elevated above mere descriptions. Eun Sun Kim’s conducting was an ultimate in (at times superfluous) electricity. Together, they made this concert a singular, joyfully rare event.

Harry Rolnick



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