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The New York Phil makes a blistering Disney Hall debut
Mark Swed | Los Angeles Times | 10 May 2012

The New York Philharmonic became one of the last of the world's most important orchestras to finally perform in Walt Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday night. And the New Yorkers, as New York travelers sometimes do, took no chances, coming prepared with the comforts of home. They schlepped their own, perfectly ugly podium.

But maybe that was the point, that this orchestra is not about appearances. For the second night of a quick California excursion, which began at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa on Tuesday night and which is surprisingly the orchestra's first U.S. tour since Alan Gilbert became music director in 2009, the New York Philharmonic also brought along its own staggering sound. Gilbert has the reputation of being a thoughtful, capable, cautious conductor, not a firebrand. He is clearly out to change that.

What the orchestra really packed for Disney — a program that began with Dvorak's very familiar "Carnival" and ended with Tchaikovsky's very, very familiar Fourth Symphony but also included Magnus Lindberg's new Piano Concerto No. 2 with Yefim Bronfman as soloist — was its capacity to deliver a considerable punch. I'm still reeling a bit from the blistering Berlioz "Le Corsaire" Overture encore.

Viewed from afar, things have been looking up in New York during Gilbert's tenure with the orchestra. He's fought the good fight to delicately move the repertory of a conservative institution forward many decades and into the 21st century. He's selected very well for his composers in residence. Lindberg was the first. Christopher Rouse takes over next season. The New York press has taken to Gilbert, pleased that clarity and substance, not flash, have been given priority at the orchestra.

Gilbert's Dvorak and Tchaikovsky were, in fact, startlingly hypercharged. He's got a thoroughbred orchestra at his disposal, and he's learned to ride it magnificently. He jumped on the Dvorak and took off. Tchaikovsky's morose symphonic fracas with fate became all blazing saddles. So, what's this all about anyway? Compensation?

One thing it's about is supreme virtuosity. Representing a town of center-of-the-earthers, the New York Philharmonic likes to present itself as America's orchestra. A couple thousand American orchestras to the contrary, it has to some degree earned that. It has a steely sound that does indeed conjure up skyscrapers. It's got a power and ferocity epitomizing pushy urban energy. America's oldest orchestra, it's a got a great history. Mahler put it on the map. Bernstein, with it, remade the map of classical music.

The New York Philharmonic is used to coping with the hard-edged, inflexible acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall, its home at Lincoln Center. That may have had something to do with how strong the orchestra came on in Disney (although Gilbert knows the hall from guest conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic). The orchestra also seemed downright gleeful to be trying out the Disney risers. Critics and players alike often complain about Fisher's lack of risers.

There was certainly excitement in the air. It was fun to follow darting instrumental lines in the Tchaikovsky. The scores didn't sound particularly new or fresh, just brilliant. Tchaikovsky's soul was not bared. Everything felt kept at arms' length.

Lindberg's Piano Concerto was another curiosity. Bringing the Finnish composer to Disney was again hardly a novelty for Angelenos. AsEsa-Pekka Salonen's closest musical friend, Lindberg got his American reputation in this town. Bronfman is another musician with deep ties to L.A.

The Second is really Lindberg's third piano concerto. The first was the noisy, irresistible 1985 kitchen-sink avant-garde extravaganza "Kraft." The official Piano Concerto No. 1, from 1994, is a rich exploration of remarkably complex sonorities with a hint of Ravel. The Third contains a giant helping of Ravel along with more than slight hints of Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Bartok and Prokofiev. There are even a couple of tunes that verge on Hollywood.

Tough Manhattan might appear to have made Lindberg a little soft. But he makes up for it with fascinating orchestra textures and glorious piano writing that assumes Bronfman to be an octopus entangled in all 88 notes of the keyboard all the time. The piano barely survived but the wow factor was considerable.

And, oh, we did our best to make Gilbert feel right at home, just in case the homely podium wasn't enough of a security blanket. A cellphone went off during the Tchaikovsky Fourth. Gilbert created a small sensation recently when he halted a performance in Fisher because a patron could not figure out how to silence an iPhone mid-Mahler. This time the disruption was at the end of the slow movement, so Gilbert did what a New York does. He looked peeved and shrugged his shoulders.
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