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New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert conducts Mahler's Third Symphony
Ronni Reich | The Star Ledger | 21 September 2009

Leading Mahler's monolithic Third Symphony, Alan Gilbert continued to prove his gifts at his first subscription concert as the music director of the New York Philharmonic.

On Thursday night at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, Gilbert demanded more from the orchestra expressively than he had at the previous night's season-opening gala — and he got it. The composer's longest symphony (running more than 90 minutes at this performance), the third originally had titles for each of its six movements, such as "What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me" and "What the Angels Tell Me"). While Mahler dispensed with the narrative explanations, the all-encompassing feel remains.

Gilbert, spurred the orchestra on to wail and punch with the force of the elements, yet also to sing lyrically, playfully and, at times, profoundly. The musicians were in top form, with the extensive brass section particularly impressive for both their penetrating quality and their consistency.

Mezzo-soprano Petra Lang made her Philharmonic debut as the soloist for the fourth movement. In text by Nietzsche describing the depth of pain, joy and eternity, her sound was dark and mournful. She employed exaggerated diction, her lingering consonants affecting like arms outstretched beseechingly as she appealed, "Oh Mensch! Gib Acht!" ("Oh, man, give heed!"). Toward the end of the movement, however, Gilbert allowed the orchestra to overpower her slightly, and she seemed strained in her interjections in the next movement.

In the airy, angelic fifth movement with folk text from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn," Fernando Malvar-Ruiz directed the American Boychoir and Joe Miller directed the women of the Westminster Symphonic Choir, comprising students at Westminster Choir College of Rider University in Princeton.

The singing was clean and well controlled, with the performers producing the lightest flurries of tone without losing focus or purity.

Gilbert transitioned directly into the final movement with the singers still standing, commanding listeners' attention. He was right to do so. Leading with an almost yogic control of dynamics and phrasing, he kept the music alive and energized through its most hushed and reflective passages and brought unrestrained intensity to its conclusion. A standing ovation followed a stunned pause.

Gilbert dedicated the performance to his teacher Leon Kirchner, a composer, pianist, conductor and professor who had died that morning.