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First a Lesson and Then a Challenge
Anthony Tommasini | The New York Times | 25 September 2009

The program that Alan Gilbert conducted with the New York Philharmonic on Thursday night was only his third as music director. So it is probably too early to make overall assessments of changes he may be bringing to the orchestra.

But the performance that Mr. Gilbert drew from the Philharmonic of Schoenberg's formidable 45-minute "Pelleas und Melisande" was urgent, assured and luxuriously beautiful. Based on the drama by Maurice Maeterlinck, this symphonic poem for orchestra is an early work, composed in 1902-3 and revised in later years. The piece presents Schoenberg's clinging to the vestiges of late Germanic Romanticism, yet trying to push the boundaries of tonal harmony. In a short video interview on the Philharmonic's Web site, nyphil.org, Mr. Gilbert aptly describes the music as "Wagner-plus."

The challenge in this piece, both for performers and listeners, is that despite the sensual orchestration, alluring chromatic harmonies and restless intensity, the music pushes rhapsodic late Romanticism to an extreme, lurching constantly, driving to climax after climax, then settling uneasily into reflective lyrical episodes. Schoenberg yanks the listener around so much that after a performance of this piece I usually feel as if I need a massage.

But Mr. Gilbert, drawing vibrant yet relaxed and articulate playing from the musicians, conveyed the layout and logic of the score and brought striking clarity to the thick textures. Still it was the sheer sound of the orchestra here — lush, warm, shimmering and clear — that kept pulling you in whenever the wayward music tested your patience.

Mr. Gilbert did what he could to help audiences appreciate this demanding piece, including his decision to precede it with the Brahms Violin Concerto, featuring the brilliant, keenly intelligent German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann as soloist, in a nobly expressive and lucid performance.

Schoenberg was such a Brahms devotee that he made a lavish orchestration of Brahms's Piano Quartet in G minor, a great chamber work that Schoenberg felt was overlooked at the time. He also found courage for his mission to expand and eventually transcend tonality in Brahms's late piano pieces, which sometimes roam into unmoored harmonic regions.

Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Zimmermann, both in their early 40s and good friends, were in sync for this involving performance of the concerto. True to Mr. Gilbert's musical nature, there was nothing flashy here, no "wow" moments, no exaggerated effects to grab attention, just honest, clear-textured and vibrant music-making.

In another sign of changes in store, Mr. Gilbert spoke to the audience about the Schoenberg piece, with the orchestra playing excerpts, before performing it. He briefly summarized the Maeterlinck story of the mysterious young Melisande, found wandering in the woods by the kindly, older Golaud, who marries her, only to see his bride fall helplessly in love with his young brother Pelleas. Mr. Gilbert concentrated on the leitmotifs of the work. As in Wagner, he explained, Schoenberg gave specific motifs to each of the characters, which Mr. Gilbert and the orchestra played singly and in combinations.

The minilecture lasted about 10 minutes, and the audience seemed appreciative. Lorin Maazel had no interest in using the Philharmonic music director's platform as a teaching tool. Mr. Gilbert is good at it.
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