It turned out to be a wonderful idea for the New York Philharmonic to open Jaap van Zweden’s second season as its music director by inviting Kelli O’Hara, a reigning Broadway star, to sing Samuel Barber’s poignant and profound “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.”
Ms. O’Hara has occasionally brought her radiant voice to classical music, including a charming performance as Despina in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of “Così Fan Tutte” last year. But “Knoxville” has long been associated with true opera divas, like Eleanor Steber and Leontyne Price. Would Ms. O’Hara have the vocal heft for the piece? Was the Philharmonic merely trading on her celebrity?
In other words, it wasn’t a choice without risk. And risk was what many thought would be lacking in Mr. van Zweden’s tenure. When he was chosen to succeed Alan Gilbert, Mr. van Zweden had a reputation for formidable accounts of the 19th-century symphonic standards. But his adventurousness at the Philharmonic — guided, no doubt, by Deborah Borda, the orchestra’s tirelessly innovative chief executive — has been the most welcome surprise of his time in New York.
The opening-night program on Wednesday suggested Mr. van Zweden’s balanced artistic vision. It opened with the premiere of Philip Glass’s “King Lear Overture” — a churning, glittering, thickly orchestrated 10-minute work that found Mr. Glass dipping into a compendium of minimalist tropes — and ended with excerpts from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” suites assembled by Mr. van Zweden.
When Mr. van Zweden’s appointment was announced, it was questioned whether he would prioritize cultivating living composers, commissioning major works, bringing in a new generation of conductors and soloists, and reaching out to the New York community to try and become a leading cultural figure here.
Yet he has delivered quite well thus far. Last season brought premieres by young composers like Ashley Fure and Conrad Tao, and by modernist masters like Louis Andriessen. The Philharmonic presented semi-staged performances of two teeming and topical works: Julia Wolfe’s multimedia oratorio “Fire in my mouth,” about the 1911 Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, and David Lang’s opera “Prisoner of the State,” an updating of Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” Two contemporary music initiatives began: Nightcap, offering late-night programs, and Sound On, concerts at Jazz at Lincoln Center, both extending themes of the orchestra’s main programming. (These series should be expanded.)
This season is even more ambitious. Many institutions are devoting large swaths of their 2019-20 seasons to celebrating the coming 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. (Carnegie Hall is practically drowning in his music.) Instead, the Philharmonic is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which brought the vote to women, by commissioning 19 female composers.
Mr. van Zweden has surprised me by championing these initiatives. It’s in the standard repertory, which was supposed to be his selling point, that his record is more mixed. He has given some vibrant, blazing and insightful accounts of Brahms, Rachmaninoff and more. But in his determination to kick-start familiar scores with excitement, he can go too far, as in “Romeo and Juliet” on Wednesday.
There was certainly much slashing intensity and incisive attack, but also gentleness and hazy colorings in the “Child Juliet” section. And the impressive technical level of the orchestra, especially the strings during fleet, racing passages, suggests how well the players are responding to Mr. van Zweden’s leadership. Still, he pushed pummeling sections so hard that the sound turned raw and harsh; there was no place left to go during the final, harrowing “Death of Tybalt” section except over the top.
On balance, though, Mr. van Zweden and Ms. Borda’s exciting programming initiatives are more important to the Philharmonic’s future than an overly aggressive account of a Prokofiev staple is harmful.
And the Barber performance was tender, subtly expressive and glowing. Ms. O’Hara’s work in musical theater harkens to the pre-amplification era on Broadway: Starring together in “South Pacific,” for example, Mary Martin and the great operatic bass Ezio Pinza had a more or less similar approach to singing.
Ms. O’Hara had abundant sound when called for — and floating, soft high notes. Yet she embraces the great Broadway heritage, in which words come first. It was a revelation to hear James Agee’s text — evoking an entranced young boy during a cozily magical evening with his family on the back porch and wet grass of his Knoxville home — rendered by Ms. O’Hara with disarming directness and clarity.
As the text shifts perspectives, and the boy seems to become an adult observing the scene, Ms. O’Hara conveyed the pensive, mysterious elements in the philosophical words and quizzical music. Mr. van Zweden drew warm, wafting sounds from the orchestra and sensitively followed Ms. O’Hara whenever she brought breadth and intensity to crucial phrases.
I’m saving a place on my best-of-the-year list for her performance, for which we have Mr. van Zweden to thank.
New York Philharmonic
This program continues through Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center; 212-875-5656, nyphil.org.