Gilbert’s debut at NY Phil bold, promising

Again, apologies for being so long absent on this blog, but everything else is eating up all my time. This seems to be what’s happening to most of the formerly employed journalists I know. We’re all trying to cobble something together from a whole lot of little bits, and too many of these things get too little of our attention.

Mea culpas out of the way, I wanted to say something about Alan Gilbert.

Last night, I tuned in to Gilbert’s debut at the helm of the New York Philharmonic, and I quite enjoyed it. The first half was wonderfully fresh, and the second, while it lacked much of the fire and power of a typical reading of the Symphonie Fantastique, was nevertheless interesting for the sheer polish of the playing. It struck me as an ideal approach for French music; perhaps not for this particular French composer, but ideal nonetheless for a certain kind of writing.

I found it somewhat remarkable that the critical reaction to Gilbert’s debut seems to have been so unfavorable, but to me it looks like everyone was hoping for a comet, a meteor, a blazing presence who would set the world on its ear and inaugurate a new, must-see season for the venerable NY Phil. What they have, just judging by what I saw, is a thoughtful, precise technician who is interested in a smooth, full sound, and has enough courage to start his debut concert with one world premiere by a challenging Finnish modernist and follow it with a song cycle by Messaien, a composer beloved by composers and musicians, but not audiences.

Still, that took guts, and it should be noted that concert programs in the past couple years across the land have started to loosen up and get more daring, and Gilbert brings his attitude of openness to the field at just the right time. I also liked seeing a conductor who has the beat under control and isn’t about to do anything perverse or arbitrary. Lorin Maazel, who is by every account I’ve heard a kind man and a formidable musician, is, it has to be said, a terrible conductor, someone who seems to decide on the spot to throw out the approach he rehearsed and try something else and dare his band to follow him.

I’ll never forget hearing him do very bizarre things with the Mozart Paris Symphony in West Palm Beach a few years back: You could feel the massed tension of the entire orchestra as it tried to figure out what in the heck was going to happen in the next bar. It was a performance that set my teeth on edge.

With Gilbert, however, you got the sense that playing for him was an orchestra happy to be trying new things like the Magnus Lindberg Expo, which is a lousy piece of music, but quite vividly colored and full of good orchestral effects. Yet it was new, and here was a performance by a bunch of great musicians determined to bring it off. I was reminded as I watched that here on stage were people with a tremendous amount of advanced degrees in music, people who in their college years had played pieces like this many times only to have to settle for the canon once they got regular work.  It must have been liberating to tackle a brand-new score, written especially for them by a real composer with real chops.

And the Messaien Poemes pour Mi, too, sung well and passionately by Renee Fleming, particularly Le collier, which to my ears was easily the most accessible of the set. Fleming’s dark voice and palpable engagement with the text made this performance riveting for me, even I don’t find the music all that compelling. It’s decent, perhaps over-indebted to Debussy, but the sheen and luster of the sound that accompanied the singing was exactly what this music calls for.

The Berlioz was less successful because it had so little red blood; each climax and peroration seemed to be over-prepared and over cautious. I’ve never heard an orchestra make quite so much out of that third movement; it seemed to go on and on in a sort of timeless fashion that was in its own way mesmerizing, again because the sound of the orchestra was so glass-like, so unperturbed.

It seems to me that Gilbert likely is naturally an intellectual, and he brought all that to bear on this performance, and probably a little too much of it. But it says great things about him that he began his entire career at the NY Phil with a sweep aside of the current canon, at least in the first half, and that when he did go for an established work in the second half, he chose one that fit admirably with the first two pieces. Brahms, for instance, or Beethoven, would have been all wrong. But choosing Berlioz was the product of deep thinking about the sound world inhabited by the first two pieces, and it was a sharp piece of programming.

On balance, I’m looking forward to more work from Alan Gilbert. His debut might not have been very exciting in sheer bravado and sparkle, but it was tremendously exciting in what it says about the path he is going to set for one of our country’s most important orchestras.  A steady hand on the podium, a deep interest in fresh music, a careful thinker about programming: That’s a pretty good set of qualities to have, and it bodes well for his, and the Phil’s, future music-making.

4 thoughts on “Gilbert’s debut at NY Phil bold, promising”

  1. I was impressed with the concert,too.
    But I don’t agree about Maazel at all. He’s hardly a “terrible” conductor;in fact, the New York Philharmonic and orchestras in general will tell you that there is no conductor with a better baton technique,whether you like his intepretations or not.
    And the NY Phil. has already been offering some of the most diversified and interesting programming of any orchestra anywhere. Critics who accuse it of being”stodgy” and “staid” are dead wrong.
    Under Masur,Mehta, and Maazel,plus guest conductors , the orchestra has already probably played more new and difficult music by contemporary composers than most orchestras put together,as well as reviving many interesting rarities.
    Gilbert will merely continue this trend, which I am all for.

  2. Robert:

    Thanks for your comment.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on Maazel, and I am fully aware that I am just about the only person I know who holds this opinion. I concede that I might be wrong, and that orchestras seem to love him.

    I can only go by what I heard and felt, and it was just awful. Maybe I caught him on a bad day.

    I’m glad you’re excited about Gilbert, and I’m sure you have a more thorough knowledge of what they’ve played over the years under Masur and Maazel. But the last time the NY Phil opened with a world premiere was with Connotations in 1962, I think, and that’s quite a long time to wait.

  3. I’m glad that Gilbert has been so brave in his approach to this appointment. I’ve had the opportunity to observe a NYPhil rehearsal of /Ein Heldenleben/ he conducted. He certainly does have an intellectual approach to the music.

    On the topic of Maazel, I have to say that his conducting technique has always seemed lacking to me. He make use of lift-beats much too often, but I do feel that his directorship is extremely advanced. With orchestras of high caliber like the NYPhil, conducting technique becomes less and less important, while directing technique and musicianship become more and more important.

    What I found about Gilbert is that he happens to be quite capable in all three of these categories. I hope he stands the test of time.

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