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A new era begins at the New York Phil
James Jolly | The Gramophone Blog | 4 February 2010

A Barbican concert that gives real hope for a magnificent future partnership

Whatever you think of Lorin Maazel as a conductor there's no denying that he bequeathed a superb ensemble to his successor at the Phil, Alan Gilbert. Whereas the Maazel sound seemed to emphasise whip-lash precision and a bright, almost dazzling, sound, Gilbert favours a warmth that radiates from the very firm core at the centre of the orchestral sound – he separates his violins, placing the basses off to the left behind them (and unusually the bass-players sit very low down, playing them almost like cellos). But what the New York Phil – 2010 vintage – conveys, above all, is a sense of joy. Not that joy was an emotion much called on in tonight's programme – superbly balanced, imaginative and, on paper, quite risky in its introspection.

First up was a Haydn symphony – a composer not that often offered at this level in the orchestra world – and not even a late one, but the composer's first all-minor-key No 49, La Passione. I'm not sure the harpsichord was that necessary but this was an elegant, thoughtful performance that conveyed the impression that Gilbert is not about big splashy gestures, but rather about finely graded music-making led from within, rather than autocratically imposed.

From one deeply humane composer to a setting of one of America's most humane poets, Walt Whitman, beautifully lifted into song by John Adams. The Wound Dresser is a multi-layered response to the scourge of AIDS in the late 1980s, the slow death of the composer's father from Alzheimer's and a meditation on pain, suffering, fortitude and death in the aftermath of battle. Thomas Hampson articulated these "graphic and tender" (Adams) words with beautiful diction, though, with a pain that seems slightly at one remove. But the orchestral writing of this extraordinary score once again touched me deeply – and the principal associate concertmaster Sheryl Staples negotiated the high-lying solo lines with total assurance, and a real sense of pain.

The second half juxtaposed the First and Second Viennese Schools to wonderful effect, but again the overall tone was hardly uplifting. Schubert's staggering Unfinished Symphony dug deep, its message of intense, and seemingly inconsolable, sadness conveyed with a great wave of emotion. The orchestral blend, mellow and rich, showed what a great orchestra the New York Phil is – winds and brass were glorious. And to end, Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op 6 – expressionistic, unhinged, hugely powerful and played with a conviction you rarely encounter in this repertoire. The ensemble was precise but you sensed that a huge heart was beating. They played this with the sweep you usually hear reserved for Mahler, and it also sounded like this was a real repertoire work. Stunning!

And a pair of encores – Beethoven's Egmont Overture (another introspective piece) and Lonely Town by Leonard Bernstein – showed two sides of this great band. One stoic and imposing, the other mellow and very very cool – the very essence of the Big Apple. I can't recall when one of the handful of world-class ensembles appointed someone we simply didn't know! (Pappano at the Royal Opera is perhaps the last such revelation.) But by turning their back on Europe and going for their first native New Yorker, the NYPO has made a magnificent choice: energising, contemporary, inclusive and, if tonight's combination of great programming and superb playing is anything to go by, hugely positive for the future. Thank goodness that tonight's concert kicked off a biennial residency at the Barbican – no doubt that tonight's audience will be first in line when the New Yorkers return in 2012!