The New York Philharmonic was treated to an extra dose of star power at Avery Fisher Hall June 18 when Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos lent his virtuosity to two challenging, emotionally overwhelming pieces: Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor and Igor Stravinsky’s immortal Firebird Suite.
The evening kicked off with a warm-up for the Philharmonic before Kavakos took the stage. Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, an irrepressible earworm to whoever’s seen Mickey Mouse dabble in the magical arts in Fantasia, led the program. Conductor Lionel Bringuier deserves a lot of credit for leading the orchestra with an energy and enthusiasm capable of making us listen to the oboe-and-bassoon-driven piece with fresh ears — and not be thinking of the cartoon at all times.
Dukas gave way to Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galanta, a 16-minute hybrid of modernism and folk music, that sounds roughly like what we might have heard had Aaron Copland lived and composed in Hungary rather than America. Kodály was an ethnomusicologist and in the early 20th century he went around recording Hungarian folk music on phonograph cylinders for posterity but also for his own musical education. The whirling climax of Dances of Galanta practically begs for you to get up and move your feet, something that probably would not be appreciated at the Avery Fisher Hall.
Finally, Kavakos and his “Abergavenny” Stradivarius from 1724 took the stage to play Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2. The violinist opened the 25-minute piece by himself, then slowly found himself accompanied by the rest of the orchestra. One of the highlights occurred nearly 20 minutes in, near the end of the second movement, when Kavakos engaged in a fierce duel with a cellist. It’s the kind of moment that makes you wish that Prokofiev, best remembered today for his programmatic music, would be appreciated as much for his non-narrative compositions. Even without a story attached to his music, the Russian was a showman who knew how to please a crowd. He weaves elements of flamenco, including castanets, into his third movement rondo variation. Why? Because he knew in 1935 that when he’d premiere his Violin Concerto No. 2 he’d do so in Madrid.
It’s fitting that the Philharmonic followed up Prokofiev with the 1919 version of The Firebird Suite, because Igor Stravinski once famously said that he considered his peer Prokofiev “the greatest Russian composer of today — après moi.” Considering what a vast orchestra The Firebird Suite requires, including double woodwind and three harps, it’s remarkable what a critical difference one violin can make. Kavakos attacked Stravinsky’s staccato violin scales with appassionato fury, summoning and assembling the rest of the Philharmonic around his singular skill. The Firebird Suite, though based on a ridiculous pseudo-Wagnerian fantasy, is structured like the opening of a flower, with Kavakos’ violin serving as the critical ray of sunlight necessary to compel that bud to bloom.
The greatest beauty of orchestral classical music might be found in its collaborative spirit, but Kavakos shows that sometimes it's one virtuosic talent who pushes the whole enterprise forward.