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Conductor Replaces Baton With Violin, for an Evening
Allan Kozinn | The New York Times | 6 October 2011

Virtually all conductors were trained as instrumentalists before they took up the baton, but too few keep their technique sufficiently up to date to perform publicly. Alan Gilbert, like Lorin Maazel, his predecessor as music director of the New York Philharmonic, is a violinist, and though he has played in the Philharmonic's chamber concerts, his appearance alongside the violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann in Bach's Double Concerto on Wednesday evening at Avery Fisher Hall was his solo debut with the orchestra.

For curiosity value alone Mr. Gilbert's solid, shapely account of the work's second violin line was probably the concert's drawing card. But as it turned out, Mr. Zimmermann's performance of Berg's Violin Concerto, which followed it, was so deeply involving and thoroughly moving that when it ended, you had all but forgotten about the Bach.

The Berg is a strange, beautiful score, certainly the most immediately accessible work in the early 12-tone repertory (possibly because it is actually a hybrid, etched in both tone rows and conventional tonality). It is, to an extent, a memorial, a reflection on the death, at 18, of Manon Gropius, the daughter of the architect Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler. That is not to say that it lacks the virtuosic writing you expect in a concerto. But those qualities are secondary to the dark intensity of the work's emotional core.

Mr. Zimmermann tapped into the music's transfiguring grief more fully than any violinist I have heard play this work. From the opening gesture — a delicately whispered ascending and descending arpeggio, set against harp, clarinet and bass clarinet — through the angry passagework at the start of the second movement to the three bars of sustained high G, also pianissimo, that close the concerto, Mr. Zimmermann built a meditation in which Berg's pain was often chillingly palpable. His tone was tightly focused, often sweet (but well short of cloying), and his sense of pace was impeccable.

Mr. Gilbert and the Philharmonic players mirrored his precision and warmth, and contributed memorable moments of their own, most notably the otherworldly wind choirs at the start of the closing Adagio. The performance was a fantastic start to Mr. Zimmermann's residency with the Philharmonic this season, which will include performances of the Beethoven and Dvorak concertos, chamber music and recitals. (The first recital is a Bach program on Tuesday.)

In the Bach, Mr. Gilbert conducted from the fiddle, leading a reduced ensemble drawn from the Philharmonic's strings and adopting a couple of current fashions from the early-music world: brisk tempos in the outer movements, for one, and having the violinists and violists stand. There were unruly moments in the opening Vivace, but elsewhere the ensemble was as tight as you could want.

The soloists took different, but by no means incompatible, approaches. Mr. Zimmerman's sound is light and fluid, and he used vibrato more sparingly than Mr. Gilbert, who also has a darker, slightly heavier sound. The interplay between them was graceful in the first two movements and took on an appealing visceral quality in the speedy finale.

The orchestra sounded magnificent in the supple, texturally transparent, contrast-rich reading of Brahms's Third Symphony with which Mr. Gilbert closed the program.