The Second Symphony of Jean Sibelius is nearly ideal music for Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic, which opened a two-night stand last night at Wolf Trap. It is full of color and contrasts, and it calls for a lot of muscle, which this orchestra has in abundance. Its structure is relatively simple. The performers need a strong sense of climax and the forethought to hold something in reserve so that the final, triumphant fanfare can resolve itself into a chorale fragment with a release of energy more powerful than anything that has gone before.
Mehta met all these requirements, with excellent playing from his whole orchestra and particularly strong work by the brass and timpani. This was by far the most impressive music on a program that opened with William Schuman's "American Festival" Overture and continued with Mozart's Clarinet Concerto.
Stanley Drucker, the orchestra's principal clarinetist and one of the world's leading players of that instrument, was the soloist in the Mozart, a work that presented no technical problems to him at all, though his performance glossed over some issues of text and style that have recently occupied specialists in 18th-century music. Such concerns were not, perhaps, relevant to a performance that was essentially in the mainstream Mozart style of major modern orchestras -- a thoroughly enjoyable kind of musicmaking, whatever musicologists may say. Drucker's playing had a fine lyricism with fluent, well-rounded tone and perfect control of the instrument and the music. The orchestral accompaniment (that's what it was; not quite a dialogue) had the virtue of never getting in the soloist's way, but could have been lighter and crisper.
Schuman recently celebrated his 80th birthday, and we may expect to hear his 50-year-old "American Festival" Overture more than once in the season ahead; it is bright, energetic music and (considering the cost of rehearsal time) a relatively inexpensive way to celebrate the life and work of an extraordinary composer, educator and administrator. In this anniversary year, we should hear more of his work -- some of the symphonies, perhaps, or the operatic "Casey at the Bat." Meanwhile, the Philharmonic's performance caught nicely the color of the overture, though it could have conveyed a stronger sense of sequential logic.