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Performance by Alan Gilbert with Cleveland Orchestra resonates on two fronts
Zachary Lewis | The Plain Dealer | 14 November 2011

Alan Gilbert set out Friday to demonstrate with the Cleveland Orchestra that music from the Second Viennese School isn't all thorny and intellectual, and in that he certainly succeeded.

And yet Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic and a former assistant conductor here, also managed, perhaps inadvertently, to do something else, something just as important: model a new, refreshing way forward for conductors of major orchestras.

The myth that Schoenberg and his pupils had no musical heart Gilbert, conducting in Cleveland for the first time since his New York appointment, shot to smithereens. No one who experienced his vital, sweeping accounts Friday of Webern's "Im Sommerwind" or Schoenberg's "Pelleas und Melisande" can have left Severance Hall clinging to such a relic.

Neither can anyone have failed to appreciate Gilbert's efforts before the Schoenberg, when he grabbed a microphone and offered a full ten minutes of commentary. Not dull, academic stuff, either, but rather live musical excerpts and key insights. Just the tools essential to a basic appreciation of the score. If only more conductors felt so at ease.

Comfort, of course, was far removed from Gilbert's actual performance. His "Pelleas" was a thing of throbbing, molten intensity, in which motions ran high without devolving into melodrama, and propulsive energy fueled even the most sensual of scenes.

Actors weren't present but the orchestra under Gilbert more than ably told the tale. Golaud's murder of Pelleas and Melisande's death were just two highlights in a string of vivid, readily identifiable moments, in which orchestral virtuosity abounded at both individual and collective levels.

It was also a powerfully immediate performance. Given the scope and dense texture of "Pelleas," many interpreters yield to murkiness. Gilbert, though, managed to hold everything at the sonic surface.

Webern is known primarily as the author of tiny, enigmatic pieces employing serialism in its purest form. None of that, however, figures into "Im Sommerwind," a student piece that could have come from almost any late Romantic-era mind.

Moreover, just as he kept listeners engaged, Gilbert also kept the orchestra on its toes, demanding lushness, delicacy and transparency throughout. The result was a scintillating performance of tremendous but never violent volatility, a gentle maelstrom of colors and emotions.

Where the Second Viennese entries were in perpetual flux, recalling Romanticism, the remainder of the program, Beethoven's Romance No. 2 and Bruch's "Adagio appassionato," amounted to a steady stream of beauty. Especially as rendered by concertmaster William Preucil, who brought to the miniature concertos for violin a clear, unwavering tone and a master's sense of timing. He even made history, presenting the Bruch in its Cleveland Orchestra premiere.

That the "Adagio" was alluring is no surprise. Bruch and indeed Preucil himself are known quantities. But Gilbert, even with his history here, was something of an eye-opener, and now we can say for certain we want more.