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Philharmonic at Carnegie: What a Difference a Hall Makes
Anthony Tommasini | The New York Times | 14 November 2010

As a running story line, the badness of the acoustics at Avery Fisher Hall is exaggerated. The hall is far from ideal, and a renovation is planned (though to what extent has yet to be decided). Still, on any given night, when the New York Philharmonic is at its best, the sound of the orchestra comes through with brightness, clarity and presence.

Then again, on Friday night the Philharmonic played one of its occasional concerts at Carnegie Hall. What a difference! Alan Gilbert conducted an Apollonian account of Beethoven's Violin Concerto with Midori as soloist, followed by an exhilarating performance of John Adams's restless, rapturous "Harmonielehre." And buffered by Carnegie's warm, reverberant, lively acoustics, the orchestra sounded terrific.

Even during hushed passages of the Beethoven (the quiet timpani strokes that begin the piece, a stately theme for subdued woodwinds or mellow strings), there was more body and depth to the Philharmonic's sound than at Avery Fisher. Big, full chords had the kind of reverberant afterlife you hear only at the great orchestral halls.

The lively acoustics were helpful to Midori. Though she plays with impressively focused tone, her sound is not big. Interpretively she took a restrained, magisterial approach to the piece.

Having made her debut with the Philharmonic as an 11-year-old prodigy, Midori, now 39, is a complete artist who knows what she wants. Her playing here had an intriguing mix of qualities. Rising scales and intricate passagework would unfold with almost mystical repose, to the point of becoming placid. Yet she could also be impetuous, rushing ahead during a fleet run or prolonging a melodic phrase. Her liberties seemed the result of deliberate decisions, not Romantic flights.

The Larghetto second movement was beautiful, played with pensive calm and tenderness. Mr. Gilbert and the Philharmonic players were attentive partners during the Rondo. Here Midori took more chances, tossing off the jaunty tune and digging into thick chords. That she still reaches audiences was clear from the warm ovation she received.

The evidence is now in: Mr. Gilbert is a top-notch John Adams conductor. For his Metropolitan Opera debut he led a brilliant, pulsing account of "Doctor Atomic." And on Friday he drew an incandescent performance of the 45-minute "Harmonielehre" from the Philharmonic.

Mr. Adams has explained that when he wrote this piece in 1985, he was grappling with the intimidating challenge posed by Schoenberg. ("Harmonielehre" is the title of Schoenberg's 1911 treatise on harmony.) In this whirlwind of a piece Mr. Adams at once explores and parodies turn-of-the-century works by Mahler, Sibelius and the early Schoenberg.

As conducted by Mr. Gilbert the parody came through not as ridicule but as what might be called imitation with attitude. The slashing, relentless chords that begin the first movement shook the hall, then subsided into the fidgety stretches that take over for the body of the movement. The music sounded like Mahler meets Minimalism. Through the gnashing dissonances and hard-edged irony of the slow movement, "The Anfortas Wound," Mr. Gilbert plumbed the music's elegiac, post-Romantic yearning. And the kaleidoscopic finale, "Meister Eckhardt and Quackie," was a breathless sonic joy ride.

As an encore, in homage to Leonard Bernstein 20 years after his death, Mr. Gilbert conducted the melancholic dance segment "Lonely Town" from the musical "On the Town," played with bluesy charm and plush string sound. This was a nice farewell to Carnegie until May, when Mr. Gilbert returns with the Philharmonic for a concert to celebrate the venerable hall's 120th anniversary.