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Guest conductor shares his gifts with vitality
Donald Rosenberg | The Plain Dealer | 23 March 2007

More than a few young conductors have been privileged to learn from the Cleveland Orchestra and move on to fine careers elsewhere. The biggest success is James Levine, an assistant conductor here in the 1960s and now music director both of the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony.

Another Cleveland alum is rising fast in the east, west and other directions. Alan Gilbert served on the orchestra's conducting staff for three years in the mid-1990s and holds major posts in Sweden, Germany and New Mexico. His frequent guest-conducting stints with top American orchestras make him a possible candidate to take over one of those ensembles in the not-too-distant future.

Gilbert's concert Thursday at Severance Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra confirmed the gifts he has been sharing with the musical world. In works by Stravinsky, Mozart and Dvorak, the 38-year-old conductor was a galvanizing and sensitive guide. He drew richly sonorous playing from the orchestra, which appeared to be energized by their guest's alert musicality.

The evening wasn't merely a forum for promising artistry. A welcome dash of seasoning came from Franklin Cohen, the orchestra's longtime principal clarinetist, who applied silken grace to Mozart's Clarinet Concerto.

Cohen has played the work often with his colleagues, but he constantly refines the interpretation. This week's performance must be the most daring he has offered, with many subtleties of color and phrasing to reveal new facets of a masterpiece.

Tempos were largely expansive, especially in the prayerful Adagio. Cohen took time to smell the mellifluous Mozartian flowers as if he were reluctant ever to let go of the experience. Playing a basset clarinet, with its dusky lower extension, he emphasized the score's ineffable lyricism, even in the joyous lines of the finale. Gilbert was a lilting, agile partner, and the orchestra personified Classical elegance.

The program framed the Mozart with symphonies from the 20th and 19th centuries. Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements is an unmistakable example of this composer's rhythmic buoyancy and harmonic inventiveness. Hints of his famous ballet scores can be heard, along with novel twists of theme and instrumental sonority.

Gilbert brought out the music's vitality and achieved utmost clarity of texture. He made sure articulations were pointed and that the second movement's delicate episodes between harp and winds received fine definition.

In terms of orchestral sweep, Gilbert's account of Dvorak's Symphony No. 6 was a glowing earful. The Czech composer's profusion of robust and heartfelt material inspired the conductor to throw his arms around this thoroughly lovable music.

The performance was disciplined, yet charged with irresistible naturalness. Gilbert conveyed the score's rustic beauty and vigor as if approaching it for the first time. The orchestra has always been a prime Dvorak ensemble, but even here the musicians sounded refreshed by the conductor's winning ability to connect so deeply.