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A Guest's Youthful Vigor at the Podium
Allan Kozinn | The New York Times | 10 February 2007

The New York Philharmonic is cultivating relationships with a handful of young (or youngish) conductors, and one of them, Alan Gilbert, returned to Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday for the first of two visits this season.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Gilbert, who turns 40 this month, is keen to show what he can do. So the three substantial works in his program, drawn from vastly different worlds, offered a concise tour of his directorial sensibilities. The news is good.

Mr. Gilbert, a New Yorker who is the chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, began with "Parodos," a magnificently noisy 1987 score by the Swedish composer Daniel Bortz.

Mr. Bortz wastes no time on curtain-raising: his work begins at fortissimo, with fast-bowed strings hovering on a single chord as bursts of brass and percussion - in the rhythms of an animated conversation - drift in and out.

Eventually, this assertiveness gives way to gentler textures and alternations of color: among them, a striking variation on the opening, with babbling woodwinds set against pianissimo strings.

Mr. Bortz doesn't take us anywhere in particular; for all its changes of dynamics and timbre, the work has little sense of movement. But its shifting perspectives create their own electricity, and Mr. Gilbert capitalized on that.

"Parodos" shared the first half of the concert with Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1, with Lars Vogt as the soloist. Mr. Vogt and Mr. Gilbert shared a view of the work as titanic rather than youthful Beethoven. In Mr. Vogt's deft rendering of the keyboard line, there were moments of spirited playfulness in the outer movements, but more typically, the performance had the heft and grandeur of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto.

That is not to say that it didn't work; the seeds of Beethoven's monumental style can be heard even in his most Haydnesque early works, and this concerto (actually written after the Concerto No. 2) is a few steps along the way. Mr. Vogt's magnified gestures seemed not merely expansive but also passionate, and Mr. Gilbert's orchestral support matched them.

Mr. Gilbert's conducting gestures are graceful and sometimes balletic but also direct and communicative. In Debussy's "Images" he asked for, and the orchestra supplied, a rhythmically and dynamically supple account that put a spotlight on the delicate woodwind tracery of its opening movement, "Gigues"; the waves of lushly blended timbres in "Rondes de Printemps"; and the peculiarly Debussian mixture of Spanish gestures and French coloration in "Ibéria." The orchestra's playing was a model of understated virtuosity.