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Cleveland Orchestra/Severance Hall/March 21
Frank Kuznik | Cultured Cleveland | 24 March 2013

Ordinarily, seeing a replacement for Pierre Boulez on the podium at Severance would make for a disappointing evening. But it took Alan Gilbert all of two minutes to dispel any regrets about missing Boulez and claim his appearances with the Cleveland Orchestra this past weekend as uniquely, and delightfully, his own.

It's tempting to attribute Gilbert's stellar showing to his familiarity with the orchestra; he spent three seasons in Cleveland (1994-97) as a conducting assistant and then assistant conductor. But that was a long time ago, especially when measured by the accomplishments and accolades Gilbert has garnered since. His appointment to Music Director of the New York Philharmonic followed eight years with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and numerous performances through the U.S. and Europe, where he is currently Principal Guest Conductor of the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg. Somehow he also finds time to oversee the conducting and orchestral studies program at Juilliard.

Still, no one could come in and create the exquisite sound Gilbert drew out of the orchestra without knowing its capabilities and strengths. The 46-year old maestro is also a devotee of 20th-century music, a considerable advantage when one is conducting a program of Ravel and Mahler. The program was an ideal match for Gilbert's skills and tastes, and his fluency in interpreting it was like watching an expert driver put a Ferrari through its paces.

The first and most striking quality of Ravel's Ma mère l'oye (Mother Goose) was its fine balance. Gilbert had fingertip control of the sound, elucidating a single harp or entire string section with equal precision and clarity, never losing a note in building textures or making transitions. Not many conductors can attain that level of transparency, especially in such a complicated piece.

In Gilbert's hands the melodies were light, almost floating from the stage, buoyed by sweet violins and shimmering cellos. Their lyrical quality was enchanting, like fairy tales are supposed to be. But Gilbert's real genius was in the details – the prick of Sleeping Beauty's spinning wheel, the Beast's glissando transformation into a handsome prince, the sudden explosion of birds taking flight in "Tom Thumb." Vividly portrayed and carefully nuanced, the effects fit neatly into the overall flow of the piece, lending it a three-dimensional quality and highlighting its brilliant musicality. Gilbert spun up the ending into a wisp of final notes that hung in the air like fading fireworks.

Mahler's Symphony No. 7 is a sprawling work that is difficult to know how to take at times. Is the composer being ironic, humorous, bold or just his usual inscrutable self? The answer is all of the above, making the conductor's most difficult task simply pulling everything together. Gilbert delivered a version of unusual integrity, with a solid organic center and polished New World gloss.

He opened the piece in large dimensions, though quickly established that Mahler's big statements need not be overwhelming. The heaving sections of the extended first movement were crisp and commanding, powerful without becoming unwieldy, giving way easily to brilliant colors in the horns and woodwinds. Gilbert reveled in the inventiveness of the second movement, using a light touch and careful layering to build the sound, and paying attention to small details like the cowbell. With the voices of the individual sections well-established, he was able to put a satirical edge on the horns in the third movement and squeeze some humor out of the guitar and mandolin in the fourth. The relatively conventional final movement roared off the stage in exuberant cascades, bursting with energy that culminated in an explosive, sharply executed finish.

It's not often that one gets to hear the vocabulary of 20th-century music so well-understood and eloquently expressed. And from a substitute conductor, no less. We wish Pierre Boulez well, and hope to see him next season. But Alan Gilbert is welcome back anytime.
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