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Philharmonic Renewed Under a Bold Conductor
Steve Smith | The New York Times | 16 December 2010

With the arrival of Alan Gilbert as the music director of the New York Philharmonic in 2009 came the promise of youthful vigor and bold initiatives. But who could have anticipated that by the midpoint of Mr. Gilbert's second season the Philharmonic would be a potent, even groundbreaking force for contemporary music? The most striking example of Mr. Gilbert's expansive view of the Philharmonic's potential — and the greatest triumph achieved by any New York musical institution in 2010 — came in May, when the orchestra presented the New York premiere of Gyorgy Ligeti's opera "Le Grand Macabre"

It was no revelation that the Philharmonic could tackle opera; shortly before Mr. Gilbert had arrived, Lorin Maazel conducted creditable concert accounts of Puccini's "Tosca" and Strauss's "Elektra." But Ligeti's opera marked new territory, both as an extravagantly challenging composition that demands much of its performers and as a 20th-century milestone that New York's full-time opera companies had neglected to address. Seizing the opportunity Mr. Gilbert and his colleagues assembled a brilliant cast; devised a lavish, innovative production directed by Douglas Fitch; and mounted an inventive media campaign that helped to attract sold-out houses.

In June Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Fitch will reunite for Janacek's "Cunning Little Vixen," a welcome offering, if hardly the rarity the Ligeti work was. But more than just a breakthrough for the orchestra, "Le Grand Macabre" raised the prospect of fundamental change for opera in New York, through future Philharmonic incursions into territory neglected by the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera.

A similar buzz greeted the Philharmonic's execution of orchestral works by the French-American maverick Edgard Varèse during the Lincoln Center Festival in July. And in October the Philharmonic immersed subscription audiences in the gnarly industrial roar of "Kraft," a watershed work by Magnus Lindberg, the orchestra's composer in residence. (I missed "Kraft," alas, but got some small sense of the occasion from the radio broadcast.) Through these presentations and further initiatives, like the contemporary-music series Contact!, Mr. Gilbert and the Philharmonic have created a substantial stir.

That "Le Grand Macabre" and some of the Contact! works were included in the Philharmonic's live-recording series iTunes Pass helped to broaden their reach. ("Kraft" is scheduled for release in January.) But their most significant impact has been in New York, where the Philharmonic is once again part of any conversation about the liveliness of the arts: a goal that Mr. Gilbert announced on arrival, then wasted no time in achieving.