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Alan Gilbert conducts Philadelphia Orchestra at Kimmel
David Patrick Stearns | Philadelphia Inquirer | 22 January 2011

Conductor Alan Gilbert defies conventional wisdom about what it takes to be music director of an American Big Five orchestra.

Gilbert has returned to the Philadelphia Orchestra this week as a guest conductor in a state of high acclaim for bringing visceral and intellectual excitement to the New York Philharmonic in his second season as music director.

Yet he's done so without any glamour factor - he's too let's-get-down-to-business for that. His modern-music programming rivals that of Pierre Boulez - without the mid-concert audience evacuations that conductor inspired in his 1970s New York tenure.

Gilbert, 44, has yet to be typed. No great repertoire specialties have emerged. No interpretive quirks are apparent. Though a highly approachable person, he's the least confessional conductor. At Thursday's Kimmel Center concert, he memorably conducted the most deceptively tricky Beethoven symphony (the Sixth) and (similar to his 2009 PBS concert from New York) more than got away with devoting the first half of the program to sometimes-bracing modern repertoire. How? Alchemy wasn't apparent. Magnus Lindberg's Expo and Christopher Rouse's Oboe Concerto came off as immediately engaging pieces thanks, simply, to high-level comprehension and preparation.

Part fanfare, part concerto for orchestra, Expo is an aerobic workout for all sections of the orchestra and, when played so confidently by the Philadelphians, an exhilarating showcase. Though far from Lindberg's best work, Expo is a fine curtain-raiser. And if ever you felt lost in the high-traffic orchestration, you could at least glom onto the near-quotations of Britten's Peter Grimes in the brass writing.

In contrast, the 2004 Rouse concerto is distinguished indeed. Sonorities seemed like characters: Muted brass seemed simultaneously comic and ominous. Hushed string chords didn't point in any further direction but bristled with an energy that suggests the piece could explode at any time. Harp and celesta added dreamy touches that could turn nightmarish.

The younger Rouse wrote music that went to many extremes. Here, extremes are more implied possibilities, and are just as powerful. Though the oboe writing was full of animation, the best moments felt more like an invocation (in the incantatory sense of the word). Does anybody do that better than Philadelphia Orchestra principal oboist Richard Woodhams?

Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 ("Pastoral") is his most placid, but its lack of harmonic variety can put extended passages to sleep. Gilbert brought vigorous tempos, lots of surface animation, and (despite some strangely clumsy final chords) a healthy sense of proportioning the symphony's more descriptive events. Overall, the interpretation felt complete unto itself, as opposed to a work-in-progress from a relatively young conductor. That's often the case with Gilbert's Three B's outings. Though he doesn't display the depths of 70-year-old Leonard Bernstein, I don't feel the lack of that in his performances.

Which brings me to my one complaint: Though I've never known him to be bland, I long for him to do something I disagree with. But it's a minor longing.