Review | At the Kennedy Center, a fiery Rotterdam Philharmonic closes its tour

Review | At the Kennedy Center, a fiery Rotterdam Philharmonic closes its tour

There was enough excitement — and mystery — surrounding the appearance of Lahav Shani, chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, that the audience burst into applause when a well-dressed gentleman strolled onstage to move a chair. (Granted, this was probably overdue; he really moved that chair.)

Shani, 35, striking and smiling, emerged shortly thereafter, inspiring thunderous corrective applause. Since 2018, the pianist and conductor has served as the youngest chief conductor in the history of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, 91 of whom were in town for the final date on a six-concert tour. Last year, it was announced that the Israeli conductor will take over as music director of the Munich Philharmonic starting in the 2026-2027 season.

At 26, Shani led the Vienna Philharmonic as an emergency substitute for Franz Welser-Möst in what amounted to a breakthrough performance, praised in Die Presse for his unflustered demeanor and lively music, “mit Gedankenfundament” (i.e., with a foundation of thought).

It’s a sharp appraisal of a first encounter with Shani, an energetic multitasker whose arresting physicality from the podium is both reserved and explosive: He balls up, he bursts out. The superheroic might he displays onstage is ever-tempered by its trusty sidekick, thoughtful modesty; it’s an instantly likable dynamic — whether he’s conducting the orchestra or spinning around to whip up the audience’s patchy applause between movements.

Monday’s program, presented by Washington Performing Arts, reflected the Rotterdam’s institutional profile as one of history’s most esteemed Dutch orchestras (founded in 1918), as well as its unofficial standing as the feisty younger cousin of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam (1888).

In Arvo Pärt’s 2013 “Swansong,” we heard the orchestra’s rich sonority. In Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major (the “Jeunehomme,” or the “Jenamy,” depending on who you ask), we heard its deep absorption and understanding of classic repertoire. In a suite of 10 selections from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” we heard its flair for drama. In each piece, we were treated to a magnificent orchestra.

Inspired by words taken from a sermon delivered by the 19th-century cardinal John Henry Newman (“a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last”), Pärt’s “Swansong” is an effective capture of the composer’s mix of the modern and the monastic.

The first thing I noticed — as oboe, harp and bassoon bloomed over subtly percolating pizzicato triplets — was the arrangement of the orchestra: the basses and cellos stage right and tucked in, the percussionists parted to opposite ends of the stage, the strings split into a deep stereo field. Such minor tweaks have a big impact in a boxy hall like the Kennedy Center, and the effect Monday was to allow the orchestra’s many talents to truly pop. More so than usual, I found myself tracking the sound around the stage like a tennis ball.

It was a beautiful take on the Pärt, Shani fortifying the composer’s sturdy structures while honoring his fondness for lightness — the soft fall of daylight through the stained glass of an old cathedral.

Having heard Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov play works by only countrymen, including Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, I’d come to understand him as a hard player. I once described him as “ingot-fingered” in my notebook, but the phrase never made it out. But his weighty playing was notable only for his unlikely delicacy and fleetness, dispatched when needed with athletic ease.

On Monday, this ease characterized the guest soloist’s gentle mastery of Concerto No. 9, from his teasing emergence in the first movement, “Allegro,” to the rushing, cascading cadenzas of the closing “Rondo,” everything pulled off with a blend of authority, reverence and energetic musicianship. The orchestra made a fabulous partner to Trifonov, their buoyant rapport flush with a nearly flirtatious intimacy.

I loved those moments in the first movement when the strings seemed to catch their breath and/or clutch their pearls. I was frequently moved by Shani’s expressive dynamic liberties, the animation he allowed into the sound. And I was charmed by Trifonov’s sensitivity — like the fading repetition of a melody in the “Andantino,” the way you might recite someone’s name to remember it. This was a softer, more human Trifonov than I’d ever heard, and the musicians of Rotterdam met him where they needed to. (You could say they went Dutch.)

Following long and loud applause, Trifonov returned to the stage for a little more Mozart, the “Adagio” movement of his Sonata in F Major (K. 332) — played with a soft touch and slight pep.

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Shani closed the program with 10 selections from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” a showcase of individual talents in the orchestra: There was especially beautiful solo work by concertmaster Marieke Blankestijn, clarinetist Bruno Bonansea, saxophonist Femke Ijlstra, and flutists Juliette Hurel and Joséphine Olech — as well as Shani’s ability to create dramatic punch in the moment, and craft an inviting narrative arc (however incomplete) over time.

By the death of Tybalt and the lovers’ tomb-side reunion, Shani had worked the suite into an appropriately torrid affair, the orchestra delivering thick gales of strings and blasts of brass of sometimes shocking force as the tragedy plodded toward disaster.

A bounding, buoyant full-orchestra encore of Prokofiev’s “March,” Op. 99 ended the evening on a happy note — its warm reception an assurance that the next time Shani comes to town, he won’t be mistaken for anyone else.

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