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Waking Up
Alan Gilbert takes over at the New York Philharmonic

Alex Ross | The New Yorker | 19 October 2009

For two drowsy decades, the New York Philharmonic played it safe: a pair of grand-old-man music directors (Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel), redundant festivals of canonical composers (Brahms, Tchaikovsky), the usual parade of soloists (when in doubt, Yo-Yo Ma). Attendance figures were generally good and finances mostly stable, yet the Philharmonic made few waves. Even last year, when a visit to North Korea generated headlines, the itinerary drew more notice than the music-making. It takes some effort to remember that this orchestra used to be a fairly wild group. In the nineteen-fifties, Dimitri Mitropoulos confronted audiences with twelve-tone music and had them dancing in the aisles, albeit toward the exits. His successor, Leonard Bernstein, passionately promoted American composers, dabbled in avant-garde happenings, and tried to convince schoolkids that Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" gave a better high than LSD. Pierre Boulez, for his Rug Concerts series of the seventies, had the seats removed from Philharmonic Hall and seduced shaggy-haired crowds with far-out sounds of Varèse and Ligeti. As recently as the nineteen-eighties, Zubin Mehta held festivals titled Horizons, exploring diverse modern fare. In other words, the Philharmonic once put its virtuosity in the service of ideas.

Two years ago, for the first time in recent memory, the Philharmonic took a gamble: it announced as its next music director the American conductor Alan Gilbert, then forty years old. "Alan who?" was a not uncommon response. Gilbert had been known to the orchestra since childhood, his parents having played together in the violin section. (His mother, the Japanese-born violinist Yoko Takebe, is still part of the ensemble; his father, Michael Gilbert, a scion of Tennessee fiddle players, is now retired.) To the public, though, Gilbert was a mostly unknown quantity, despite numerous guest-conducting appearances. He built his career quietly, often in Europe; from 2000 to last year, he led the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, and he also directed the Santa Fe Opera. Meanwhile, the New York Philharmonic unsuccessfully pursued various other conductors, including Riccardo Muti, who fit the mold of the senior celebrity maestro to which the orchestra had become accustomed. When, ten months after Gilbert's appointment, Muti agreed to take over the Chicago Symphony, Philharmonic players were said to be envious—a bad sign for the incoming director.

Gilbert officially assumed his post at a gala concert, on September 16th. Back-bench grumblings aside, the risk seems smartly taken. First, Gilbert is a native New Yorker who intends to remain in the city most of the year. He will not be one of those directors who work their magic for twelve contractually obligated weeks and then vanish into their villas. Last summer, Gilbert set an excellent precedent by choosing to lead all of the Philharmonic's free outdoor concerts instead of delegating the job to an assistant or a guest. Facing a crowd of eighty thousand people in Central Park, he made casual comments before the encore, cutting an amiable profile. At Avery Fisher Hall, too, he has occasionally picked up a microphone and, in the old Bernstein style, delivered mini-lectures, although he has wisely omitted the rambling political disquisitions.

Gilbert has also shown more interest in modern music than any Philharmonic director since Boulez. His gala dispensed with the usual musical bonbons, instead presenting a world première—"EXPO," a gleaming overture by the orchestra's new composer-in-residence, Magnus Lindberg—and a rare performance of Olivier Messiaen's fervid 1936 song cycle "Poèmes Pour Mi," with an intensely engaged Renée Fleming. (A new-music series, under Lindberg's aegis, will be inaugurated in December; future activity will benefit from a ten-million-dollar grant from the financier Henry Kravis.) After intermission came the "Symphonie Fantastique," completing a theme for the night: music of three centuries, in brilliant color, stemming from outside the Germanic tradition. Masur and Maazel had little flair for programming; overtures, concertos, symphonies, and new pieces were haphazardly lumped together. Gilbert, like David Robertson, in St. Louis, and Michael Tilson Thomas, in San Francisco, devises programs that tell a story.

For those who have followed Gilbert's career, neither his anti-aristocratic stance nor his lively intellect comes as a surprise. The real news is the sound of the Philharmonic itself. Simply put, the orchestra is playing better than it has in the seventeen years that I've been a critic in New York. It has mellowed, evened out, grown warmer, and—strange to say, given the new director's relative youth—matured. It sings where it used to shout. Gilbert has plainly thought hard about how the ensemble should relate to its home space, the eternally problematic Avery Fisher Hall, and he has split the violins on either side of the podium, as Mahler and Toscanini did in their Philharmonic days. The result is a more balanced, centered sound, with the hall's harsh acoustics tempered and the bass strengthened. Climaxes—the March to the Scaffold in the "Fantastique," the roaring final pages of Mahler's Third Symphony, the anguished fanfares of Schoenberg's "Pelleas und Melisande"—now achieve the rounded weight that you associate with the great European ensembles. Close your eyes and you think you're hearing the Berlin Philharmonic. Then a tangy clarinet solo kicks in—Mark Nuccio, the acting principal clarinet, is proving a worthy successor to the great Stanley Drucker, who retired last summer, after sixty years—and you know you're back in N.Y.C.

Gilbert is not the sort of conductor who slathers his personality over the music. Listeners who grew weary of Maazel's interventionist habits—his arbitrary twisting of tempos, his abrupt underlining of instrumental details—may be relieved that Gilbert's interpretations contain few radical flourishes. (I became discouraged less than an hour into the previous regime, when Maazel, at his opening gala, imposed a cartoonish ritardando at the end of the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth.) Here, finally, is a conductor who makes sensible, subtle choices. Gilbert is precise in setting tempos and giving cues—inexact entries are exceedingly rare—yet his precision is not of the mechanical, whip-crack kind. Maazel conducted from the top down, his arms fluttering like the wings of a bird of prey. Gilbert leads more from the middle of the body, with a big, wide beat. Solos ring out with new freedom; Liang Wang, the principal oboist, made an especially poetic impression in the slow movements of the "Fantastique" and of the Brahms Violin Concerto (a rich-hued interpretation, with Frank Peter Zimmermann). As Anthony Tommasini noted in the Times, the Philharmonic seems, for the first time in many years, relaxed.

The missing element is heat. Gilbert has been a shade too cautious, as if he were a well-brought-up kid who suddenly finds himself at the wheel of a hundred-thousand-dollar sports car. The Berlioz was beautifully played, with tricky accelerations executed to a tee, but it lacked demonic energy. The first movement lasted eighteen minutes—five minutes longer than it did in Charles Munch's and Bernstein's classic recordings. You wanted Gilbert to press forward, even if it meant losing some precision in the process. The Mahler, too, needed more delirium in the anarchic development section of the first movement, where Bernstein, in his readings, seemed to send all of Charles Ives's marching bands into the coffeehouses of Vienna. But it's understandable that Gilbert has so far avoided pushing his new vehicle to the limits. He's building relationships with the musicians, and the initial results have been strong enough that no one should be pining for Muti any longer.

At the end of "Pelleas," Schoenberg's gargantuan orchestral meditation on the same Maurice Maeterlinck play that inspired Debussy's opera, there was a remarkable effect that I hope is a sign of things to come. In the final measures, the brasses reprise, in muted but rasping tones, the dissonant fate motif that has sounded through the piece. The passage achieved the kind of narrative force that seldom occurs in modern orchestral playing: it was cold, curt, jagged, communicating the bitter dread at the heart of Maeterlinck's tale of doomed love. The orchestra sounded, at long last, fully awake.
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