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Review: Two Electric Debuts at the New York Philharmonic

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At a time when many orchestras are relying on entrenched repertoire and beloved artists to shore up their dwindling audiences, the New York Philharmonic on Thursday night offered three thrilling new perspectives — two from younger, female performers making their Philharmonic debuts, the third a world premiere.

One of the debuting artists was the dynamic conductor Elim Chan. Born in Hong Kong, trained in the United States and already a sensation in Europe, Chan walked to the podium with confidence. Her physical ease was justified: She showed up to her first gig with the Philharmonic fully ready to harness its forces.

She opened the program with the string orchestra version of “Pisachi,” commissioned by the Philharmonic from the Chickasaw composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate. Originally written for the string quartet Ethel, “Pisachi” (pronounced “pih-SAH-chee”) pays homage to the desert landscape of the Southwest and the music of the Hopi and Pueblo peoples.

“Pisachi” alternates between hushed, singing harmonics and piquant rhythms painted in impassioned tremolos and spiky pizzicatos. Tate’s gifts for texture and color are intensely rendered in Ethel’s feisty 2015 recording; the Philharmonic’s version was plusher. Still, Chan drew out all of Tate’s biting phrases; conducting with just her hands, her fingers fluttered in the air.

Chan was then joined by the Argentine cellist Sol Gabetta, also making her Philharmonic debut, in Bohuslav Martinu’s First Cello Concerto — enough of a rarity that it might as well be another piece of new music. (The Philharmonic last performed it in 1976.)

The piece’s overall effect is more of an exhilarating, virtuosic solo than a concerto, despite the orchestra’s graceful accompaniment. Perhaps that’s why orchestras are loath to program it despite some lovely moments, including a hauntingly somber duet between the soloist and a violist (Rebecca Young, the associate principal).

Gabetta made her presence known immediately with sweet swagger: Anticipating her entrance in the opening movement, she swayed in her chair and stamped her feet as the orchestra played. She brought the playful dexterity of a bebop artist to the outer movements, and carried the legato sections with silky smoothness. And her loose-limbed phrasing was on display in her unusual encore, the “Flamenco” from the Spanish composer Rogelio Huguet y Tagell’s Suite Espagnole No. 1.

The winds and brass finally went full throttle in Rimsky-Korsakov’s ever-popular “Scheherazade.” (It’s the piece that Chan led to win the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition in 2014; she was the first — and still only — woman to get the prize.) Chan, who by now had picked up a baton, dove in with obvious relish.

The Philharmonic’s concertmaster, Frank Huang, depicted the character of the master storyteller Scheherazade in a series of solos that were as jazzily unfettered as Gabetta’s had been. As the Rimsky-Korsakov fully unfolded, it was clear that the empathic Chan trusted various Philharmonic section leaders to take their time with their solos, like a dazzling turn by the principal bassoonist Judith LeClair.

Even with a baton in hand, Chan never abandoned her fingers as her principal tools: Her stick was merely an appendage. At every point, she urged the orchestra to dig deeper into the score technically and emotionally, and they responded with equal verve and appreciation.

New York Philharmonic

This program repeats through Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org.

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