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A New Tone Is Part of a New Tenure
Allan Kozinn | The New York Times | 2 October 2009

Alan Gilbert undoubtedly knows that as the New York Philharmonic's new music director, he will have a honeymoon period during which everyone — his orchestra as well as his audience — will be wishing him the best while also focusing intently on what he is doing and how. He seems comfortable with that scrutiny and is keeping his listeners guessing how he will present himself and his orchestra.

Mr. Gilbert's first couple of weeks were strictly business (although even that included surprises, like seating the violins antiphonally, the firsts to his left and the seconds to his right). Now he is loosening up.

When he took the stage at Avery Fisher Hall on Wednesday evening for a concert that opened with a repeat of "EXPO," the new Magnus Lindberg work that opened the season, he brought Mr. Lindberg with him for a chat about his style in general and "EXPO" in particular. In a discussion lasting 10 minutes, as long as the work itself, Mr. Gilbert illustrated some of Mr. Lindberg's points by having the orchestra play short excerpts.

It was a deft move, showing Mr. Gilbert to be an easygoing, articulate, even amusing advocate for new music (and not incidentally, a student of the Leonard Bernstein playbook). More crucial, the performances — Mr. Lindberg's brisk, appealingly busy new piece, two Ives scores and Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto — showed that Mr. Gilbert has been able to reshape the Philharmonic's sound surprisingly quickly. The precision the orchestra achieved during Kurt Masur's and Lorin Maazel's tenures remains intact, and Mr. Gilbert is transforming the icy glare of the Maazel sound into a warm glow.

His interpretive ideas bear watching, too. Instead of playing up the waywardness of Ives's Second Symphony, he applied a dark-hued string tone and shapely phrasing that highlighted the score's Neo-Classicism. Stretches of the first and last movements could almost have escaped from Strauss's "Rosenkavalier," the music's real provenance given away only by Ives's tendency to break into "Camptown Races," "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" or other repurposed folk themes. By not overstating those moments, Mr. Gilbert made the score sound organic, a revelation even to an Ives fan.

He also led a sublimely hushed account of Ives's "Unanswered Question," with most of the orchestra onstage and a brass and woodwind complement in the second balcony. And with only a second's pause, the pianist Emanuel Ax played the opening chords of the Beethoven as the mood of the Ives lingered. Mr. Ax and Mr. Gilbert collaborated on an elegant, occasionally dramatic reading, with sharply articulated piano lines that took account of the music's extremes of delicacy and ferocity, particularly in the cadenzas (Beethoven's own).
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