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Gilbert leads BSO in Ives's epic Fourth Symphony
Jeremy Eichler | The Boston Globe | 6 March 2009

Next fall the young conductor Alan Gilbert will be taking up the reins of the New York Philharmonic as its 25th music director and there are high hopes that he will bring that magnificent yet artistically staid orchestra a sense of freshness and new life. Focused yet unflashy on the podium, he is unquestionably a thoughtful musician with engaging ideas about the music of today and how it connects to the great masterpieces of the past. It should be fascinating to see if and how he can turn around the huge orchestral ship.

In the meantime, a bit of Gilbert's flair for programming with rich contrasts was on display last night in Symphony Hall, where he led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in three early-20th century works that were all written within 30 years of each other yet seemed to hail from completely different universes. The evening opened with an alluring performance of Sibelius's tone poem "Night Ride and Sunrise," yet the strongest contrast came with the final two works: Rachmaninoff's ubiquitous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Ives's epic and rarely heard Fourth Symphony.

Rachmaninoff was ultimately a late-Romantic composer marooned in the 20th century. "I understand nothing of the music of today," he commented in 1933, the year before he wrote his Paganini Rhapsody. In some of its structural details you can feel Rachmaninoff working hard to sound innovative but his piece inevitably became best known for its moments of soaring lyricism and old-fashioned keyboard brilliance. The British pianist Stephen Hough last night gave it a supremely poised and thoughtful reading that did not shy away from the work's external glitter but also seemed determined to spotlight its textural subtleties and moments of quiet poetry. He did so extremely well.

Rachmaninoff once wrote that "a composer's music should express the country of his birth, his love affairs, his religion, the books which have influenced him, the pictures he loves. It should be the product of the sum total of a composer's experiences." Ironically, few pieces answer this call more fully than Ives's visionary Fourth Symphony, in which the composer seems to have united all of the disparate musical and biographical threads that run through his other works. It was written mostly between 1909 and 1911 and yet it is still a piece that sounds bracingly modern today.

It calls for chorus and massive orchestral forces which Gilbert managed artfully last night, with the aid of an assistant conductor (Andrew Grams) who helped the musicians navigate the multiple tempos. The work is a giant palimpsest with musical layers piled high on top of each other, at times building to a kind of glorious sonic anarchy. Gilbert chose a spacious pacing and found clarity and structure within the chaos. He drew a beautifully rich tone from the strings in the third movement fugue, and traced the broadest of arcs in the spiritually searching finale. At the very end, the music created just the desired effect: it seemed to evaporate into a clear night sky.