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An Upbeat Downbeat in New York
Barrymore Laurence Scherer | The Wall Street Journal | 18 September 2009

Back in 2002, five years before his death, the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich told me that as a child he was "crazy to become a conductor." Instead, his father gave him a miniature cello, saying, "First make your career as a performer, because only when an orchestra trusts you as a performer can you conduct." This story came to mind on Wednesday night as the conductor Alan Gilbert, 42—who is also a pianist, violinist and violist—began his first season as music director of the New York Philharmonic. If one thing seems apparent at the start of his tenure, it's that Mr. Gilbert is quickly forging that collegial trust.

Certainly, Mr. Gilbert's immediate predecessor, Lorin Maazel, left the Philharmonic in top form as an ensemble. But after nearly two decades of elder statesmen at the orchestra's helm, it is refreshing to see a new chief who is relatively young and obviously well disciplined. The loud and long ovation that greeted Mr. Gilbert's entrance suggested the audience felt this way too.

The concert helped to confirm a number of things I observed when Mr. Gilbert led the orchestra as music director designate in May. Apart from his balanced mixture of poise and movement on the podium—no flying hair or choreographic excess—Mr. Gilbert has a clear stick technique complemented by a fluid and articulate left hand. It is very pleasing to watch, and I'd think very informative from the musicians' point of view. What's most heartening is that he and the orchestra seem to play as a unit for which the music comes first.

The evening's program was admirably suited to a kickoff, with a world premiere, a premiere for the orchestra, and a hardy warhorse. The opener was "EXPO" by the Philharmonic's new composer-in-residence, Finland's Magnus Lindberg. The extrovert score emphasizes the possibilities of sheer orchestral sound—fleet-fingered strings, massive waves of brass and woodwind, patter for tubas and double basses. Quite unexpectedly, Mr. Lindberg introduces a jolly oompah section in septuple meter (seven beats to the measure), a postmodern riposte to one of Mahler's sudden bits of fun. In truth, at first hearing, the piece seemed structurally diffuse, less a true working out of distinctive thematic ideas than a succession of colorist episodes concluding in a serene concordant halo. In any case, conductor and orchestra reveled in its technical display, and it will be interesting to hear what further scores Mr. Lindberg creates for them.

Messiaen's nine-song cycle "Poèmes pour Mi" offered more substance. Set to Messiaen's own texts, the songs were composed for voice and piano in 1936 to honor the composer's wife of four years, Claire Delbos, a composer herself. It is a typically visionary apostrophe to love and marriage from Messiaen's devoutly Catholic viewpoint. Surprisingly, though Messiaen orchestrated the work in 1937, this was its first performance by the Philharmonic.

With its array of instrumental textures, shifting clouds of ambiguous harmony, and texts mingling the sensuality of the Song of Solomon with religious ecstasy and guilt, Messiaen's cycle presents itself as a succession of vaguely disturbing dreams. Though the texts frequently allude to connubial joy, little in the music is conventionally joyous. Essentially this is the music of Surrealism, and as I listened I found myself recalling imagery by the painters René Magritte and Salvador Dalí (not to mention those eerie floating eyes of Odilon Redon).

Soprano Renée Fleming bathed the songs in her luxurious voice, creating some gorgeous effects in "Ta Voix" ("Thy Voice") and "Le Collier" ("The Necklace") while not being afraid to approach gutteral vocalism to emphasize the violence of "Les Deux Guerriers" ("The Two Warriors"). Admittedly, from my seat well back in the hall she occasionally seemed engulfed by the orchestra. But that's possibly attributable to acoustical shortcomings, rather than to any musical ones.

Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique concluded the evening on familiar territory, its extraordinary protomodernity perfectly complementing the preceding works. Whenever I hear this score, completed in 1830, I can imagine how the first audiences must have perceived it. Berlioz breaks with the musical conventions of his own day: His constantly shifting phrases and unpredictable accents, his often strange instrumentation—especially the weird contrapuntal uproar of the Witches Sabbath—all stormed the boundaries of what was expected of music. Long before Liszt and Wagner promoted the "Music of the Future," Berlioz was writing it. And for this magnificent performance, Mr. Gilbert and the Philharmonic not only brought out all the Romantic color and grotesque vitality of the score, but its genuinely Byronic wit.

All in all, this new collaboration of conductor and orchestra augurs well, and I'm keen to hear its progress.