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NY Philharmonic Opening/ Gilbert, New York
Martin Bernheimer | Financial Times | 18 September 2009

New Yorkers love fussy galas, lofty statistics and conspicuous changes of the cultural guard. The devout were suitably happy at Avery Fisher Hall on Wednesday when the Philharmonic opened its 168th season with its 14,870th concert, an event marking the succession of a brave young man to what had been Lorin Maazel's august podium. Alan Gilbert's time had come.

At 42, Gilbert brings with him broad aesthetic interests, curiosity for novelty, solid if hardly spectacular career credentials, a no-nonsense public persona and special family ties. His mother plays the violin in the ensemble, and his father did the same until retiring a few seasons ago. It's a good story: local boy makes good, makes it big, and makes it splashy.

The festivities began in the morning with an open dress rehearsal. The inaugural programme that night, billed as a black-tie affair, was televised nationally, also beamed via "plazacast" to a surprisingly sparse crowd outside the concert hall. The affluent first-nighters sipped bubbly as a prelude to the post-performance dinner. The forestage bore enough bouquets to decorate a hundred funerals.

Eschewing speeches and formalities, Gilbert inaugurated his regime with EXPO, a razzle-dazzly pièce d'occasion by the orchestra's new composer-in-residence, Magnus Lindberg. Juggling fanfares of various colours, speeds and dynamics for 12 frantic minutes, it offended no one. The centrepiece turned out to be Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi, written in 1936 yet never before ventured by this orchestra. Gilbert provided a sensitive if slightly aggressive instrumental frame for Renée Fleming, who sang with a fine fusion of preciosity, sensuality and piety while oozing glamour in a gown credited to Angel Sanchez.

As if to compensate for the absence of hum-along tunes, Gilbert returned after the interval with Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. Lyrical tension was often enhanced by telling little pauses and hesitations. The sprawling rhetoric was tautly delineated, leisurely tempos notwithstanding. Most important, the Philharmonic – reseated with the second fiddles up front at the conductor's right – played with unaccustomed degrees of verve, balance and precision. A bright beginning. Rating: 5/5