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Courting the Hometown Audience in Central Park, With Mozart and Beethoven
Vivien Schweitzer | The New York Times | 16 July 2009

Alan Gilbert, the incoming music director of the New York Philharmonic, has a markedly different idea of what that post should encompass than his predecessor, Lorin Maazel, did. In a recent interview with the news channel NY1, Mr. Gilbert, who will also teach and conduct at the Juilliard School this fall, said he felt "a very sincere hope that we can make connections to the city and mean something for individuals in the city."

A balmy summer evening in Central Park on Tuesday presented Mr. Gilbert, 42, the first native New Yorker to hold the position, with the perfect opportunity to continue courting his hometown audience. He is certainly off to a populist start, conducting the first of several free programs he will lead in the city this month. (Mr. Maazel led only one concert in the parks during his seven-year tenure.)

The coming Philharmonic season has plenty of new music, including an opening-night premiere in September by the Finn Magnus Lindberg, the orchestra's first composer in residence in nearly 20 years. Tuesday's concert featured two popular repertory staples: Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony and the Beethoven Symphony No. 7.

After speeches from local dignitaries, including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Mr. Gilbert opened the program with the Mozart. Textural details are invariably lost when an orchestra uses microphones in vast open spaces, but the performance was as nuanced as possible under the circumstances, with clearly articulated phrasing throughout; a stately, joyous Menuetto; and a dynamic finale.

The Beethoven at times fared less well, with softer sections, like the opening of the second movement, muffled and indistinct. But the concluding Allegro con brio unfolded with majestic spirit and a driven pulse. The huge crowd, estimated by the police at 80,000, applauded energetically between movements of both symphonies.

Mr. Gilbert, the son of Philharmonic musicians (his mother, Yoko Takebe, is a violinist with the orchestra; his father, Michael Gilbert, also a violinist, is retired), seemed to be enjoying himself as he bantered with the audience about the encore. Via text message listeners chose the Scherzo from the Mendelssohn Octet over Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture.

"A close race," said Mr. Gilbert from the stage, but "we did the recount carefully." The Philharmonic is trying to use mobile technology for more than just encore selections. Starting this summer, for the first time, audience members can make donations to the orchestra via text message, with payments being made through their cellular provider.

After a sprightly performance of the Mendelssohn and vigorous applause for New York's native son, fireworks lighted up the Manhattan skyline.