Music Review: Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Carnegie Hall

February 8th, 2013

Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Pablo Heras-Casado leading the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night. 

In recent years the orchestra world has been galvanized by two exciting conductors in their 30s: Gustavo Dudamel and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Before long people may be talking about another conductor in that age bracket: the Spaniard Pablo Heras-Casado, 35, who led an impressive concert with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night.

He began with Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture, striding to the podium, all boyish, curly-haired and eager. He drew crisp and textured playing from the orchestra. The performance had musical depth and character, not just élan and excitement.

Mr. Heras-Casado first conducted the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at the Caramoor Festival in the summer of 2011, and was named the ensemble’s principal conductor that fall. Among its many activities the orchestra offers a handful of symphonic programs each season at Carnegie Hall and the Caramoor Festival.

This probably suits Mr. Heras-Casado, since his wide-ranging interests include conducting Renaissance choral groups and performing in contemporary-music festivals.

For all his charisma, Mr. Heras-Casado seems by nature a substantive musician not out to wow audiences, as this intriguing program made clear. Following the Beethoven overture, the distinguished German pianist Christian Zacharias, equally known as a conductor, was soloist in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor. The two Chopin concertos are like ingenious piano pieces with orchestral backdrops. There is little for a conductor to do but provide support for the pianist and make Chopin’s orchestral writing seem less awkward than it is.

In this deeply personal concerto Chopin wrote a piano part suffused in lyrical invention, harmonic richness and contrapuntal intricacy. Mr. Zacharias emphasized the subtlety of the music in his soft-spoken and eloquent performance. Now and then I wanted more bite, more sound, just a bit of showiness. Still, this was a sensitive and intelligent rendition, ably complemented by Mr. Heras-Casado and the orchestra.

When I first saw that this program would offer five Debussy preludes for piano in arrangements by the composer Hans Zender, completed in 1991, I thought this was cheating on Mr. Heras-Casado’s part. Why not play a new work instead of a novelty? Besides, I love the Debussy preludes as piano pieces.

But these are brilliant arrangements, with daring use of percussion, including mallet instruments and, in “Général Lavine-eccentric,” a bowed saw. (Does the saw count as a percussion instrument?)

In the arrangement of “Voiles” (“Sails”), Mr. Zender brings clarity to textures that are hazy on the piano, so the arrangement is also a kind of commentary. All in all, this suite of preludes in these arrangements did sound like something new.

Mr. Heras-Casado ended with Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor, not the familiar and heavily revised version the composer completed in 1851, but the little-heard 1841 original that he withdrew after its disastrous first performance. In this version some of the tempos are faster, the orchestration is lighter, and transitions between certain sections and movements are more elaborate. The piece comes across as an episodic symphonic essay.

Mr. Heras-Casado led a luminous and urgent performance, deftly balancing the shifts from moody ruminations to bouts of exuberance. There are many symphonies he could have chosen had he wanted to make a big impression. Instead he offered the audience a fascinating excursion. Mr. Heras-Casado is the thinking person’s idea of a hotshot young conductor.

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s next concert at Carnegie Hall is on March 28; (212) 247-7800, carnegiehall.org.

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