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More Than a Few Encouraging Signs From a Conductor Waiting in the Wings
Anthony Tommasini | The New York Times | 15 March 2008

The classical music world is counting on Alan Gilbert to bring fresh vision and youthful excitement to the New York Philharmonic when he takes over as music director in 2009. That he is poised to do so came through palpably on Thursday night at Avery Fisher Hall when he conducted an urgent, richly colorful and unusually lucid account of Strauss's opulent tone poem "Ein Heldenleben" ("A Hero's Life").

What came through as well is how assured and dynamic the relationship already is between this 41-year-old conductor and the Philharmonic players. Since his debut in 2001, he has conducted the orchestra fewer than three dozen times. But he is a Philharmonic baby, born to two violinists in the orchestra, and there are veterans among its ranks who have watched him grow up.

The chemistry seems right. Moreover, for those who have faulted the Philharmonic for paying inadequate attention to living composers under Lorin Maazel's tenure, Thursday night's program was promising. It began with the premiere of "Quintessence": Symphony No. 2, by Marc Neikrug, a work that came into being through Mr. Gilbert's encouragement.

In 2005, Mr. Gilbert heard a performance of a piano quintet by Mr. Neikrug at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, where the composer is artistic director. Though Mr. Gilbert liked the music enormously, he thought it would benefit from a wider palette of orchestra colors. So Mr. Neikrug turned the quintet into a 25-minute symphony, as he explained during a preperformance talk on Thursday, with the composer Steven Stucky posing questions and Mr. Gilbert on the podium to conduct excerpts.

At a time when many living composers struggle to find distinctive musical voices and write works that make big statements, Mr. Neikrug, 61, is content to speak personally and self-effacingly in "Quintessence." Naturally, there are elements of older styles in his language: richly chromatic neo-Romantic harmonies, patches of piercing yet unaggressive atonality, moments that recall composers as diverse as Roger Sessions and Leonard Bernstein. Yet this somber, pensive piece has such directness and emotional clarity that the music seems utterly honest.

In the best sense, Mr. Neikrug is a professional. This continuous symphony has seven sections, each one further subdivided. But in no way does the score emerge like some musical road map. You are carried along by an involving narrative thread that Mr. Neikrug spins.

It begins with grumbling, deep sustained tones over which abrupt motifs break through and gradually coalesce into longer statements and discursive themes. A scherzo section is particularly striking for the deft way Mr. Neikrug juxtaposes layers of contrasting materials: a fitful theme in the lower strings; nudging harmonies in the woodwinds and brasses; skittish high-pitched riffs. The subdued final section, with lacy melodic lines and dusky calming sonorities, brings the work to a quizzical yet somehow emotionally right conclusion.

To pair this modest symphony with the self-indulgent, egocentric "Heldenleben" was an intriguing idea. But Mr. Gilbert's performance was a reminder that Strauss, too, was a complete professional. For all its bombast, the music is cagey and intricate, qualities Mr. Gilbert conveyed in this brilliant yet never flashy performance.

The future of the Philharmonic looks good so far.