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Exploring Labyrinthine Passages
Anthony Tommasini | The New York Times | 19 September 2009

There is nothing cautious about the way Alan Gilbert has begun his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic. First, for the season-opening gala concert on Wednesday, he conducted a boldly adventurous program that included a new work and a seldom-heard Messiaen song cycle.

Then on Thursday night, for his first subscription program, Mr. Gilbert chose the longest of Mahler's nine symphonies, the Third, an elusive and complex score full of treacherously exposed passages. Even the movements that seem bucolic on the surface are abuzz with intricate inner details.

If the gala program was evidence of the new initiatives that Mr. Gilbert wants to bring to America's oldest orchestra, the Mahler performance may have been directed to those who doubted that a 42-year-old American had the depth and command of a true maestro. The doubters should be reassured. Conducting this 100-minute score from memory and with unflagging stamina, Mr. Gilbert drew an organic, solidly executed and deeply involving performance from the orchestra, the Women of the Westminster Symphonic Choir, the American Boychoir and the mezzo-soprano Petra Lang.

If the performance, for all of Mr. Gilbert's insights, sometimes seemed a work in progress, that was to be expected. Although Mr. Gilbert was already a familiar presence on the podium when he was appointed two years ago, he and the players are learning one another's ways.

Thanks to Lorin Maazel and, before him, Kurt Masur, the Philharmonic is in top-notch technical shape. The players are resourceful and responsive. It is too early to talk in detail about the changes Mr. Gilbert has brought about in the playing. Still, on the basis of programs he conducted last spring, the opening-night concert and, especially, the Mahler, some characteristics are coming through.

The sound of the orchestra, especially the strings, seems a little leaner, with more focused tone and less vibrato in sustained lines. Mr. Gilbert certainly favors full-bodied, robust sound, which can build to daring decibel levels in climactic moments. But he cares intensely about inner textures and strives for clarity, even at the expense of warmth.

Mr. Gilbert's other priority is rhythmically honest playing. At a time when so many conductors favor expansive interpretations, Mr. Gilbert may develop a reputation as the conductor who conducts in time.

That he is a modest man is reflected, in the best sense, in his music making. He is a probing and accomplished conductor with strong ideas about music. Yet making big interpretive statements just to make them seems not his thing. This approach permeated his account of the Mahler.

The Third Symphony is a searching, moody and monumental ode to nature. Mahler initially subtitled the volatile first movement, which lasts nearly 30 minutes, "Pan Awakes. Summer Marches In. (Pan's Procession)." It opens with a virile fanfare for eight horns in unison, punctuated with decisive, slashing chords from the full orchestra. Mr. Gilbert captured the sunny energy of the opening without overemphasizing anything.

Then, as the music explored the primordial netherworld of nature for a long stretch, Mr. Gilbert drew playing that conveyed the heaving, amorphous void, yet still managed to have musical shape and clear direction. But most of the movement, as the subtitle indicates, is filled with mystical marches, and here Mr. Gilbert excelled, maintaining a steady tread while allowing for space and flexibility.

In the next two movements, first a genial dance and then a wistful scherzando, the overall gait and grace of the playing were sometimes compromised as Mr. Gilbert worked to bring out the multilayered elements that make this score a landmark at the turn of the 20th century, complete with pungent dissonances and complexities.

Ms. Lang was a compelling soloist in the fourth movement, a pensive setting of a text by Nietzsche exploring the relative depths of pain and joy. Though her voice lacked warmth and steadiness, she made the words matter and conveyed the searching strangeness of the music. The choirs sang beautifully in the celestial fifth movement, a setting of a poem from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" that anticipates joyful life in heaven.

In the final movement, a slow, surging meditation, Mr. Gilbert showed that he could be rhythmically expansive without lapsing into excess. The orchestra sounded terrific, over all. The principal trumpeter, Philip Smith, played rivetingly in dramatic solo moments. And the principal hornist, Philip Myers, an accomplished but sometimes unreliable player, had a great night. The players seem to be listening to one another and eagerly engaged.

Speaking from the stage, Mr. Gilbert dedicated the Mahler to the composer Leon Kirchner, who had died at 90 on Thursday. Mr. Gilbert, who studied with Mr. Kirchner at Harvard, called him "one of the best teachers I ever had."