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A Slide Show for the Ear, Given by Emanuel Ax
Anthony Tommasini | The New York Times | 29 April 2011

There were really two programs at the New York Philharmonic on Thursday night. In the second half, Alan Gilbert conducted a strongly conceived, vigorous performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony.

In the first half, the admired pianist Emanuel Ax gave his 100th performance with the orchestra, having made his debut at 28 in 1977 with Mozart's Piano Concerto in D minor, an event he recounts in an interview published in the program. For this milestone on Thursday, Mr. Ax engaged Mr. Gilbert and the Philharmonic in an adventurous musical experiment.

They performed Messiaen's "Couleurs de la Cité Céleste" ("Colors of the Celestial City"), a 1963 work of some 20 minutes scored for solo piano and 20 or so brass, woodwind and percussion instruments. To place the Messiaen in a revealing context, Mr. Ax began by playing "Pagodes," the first of the three pieces from Debussy's solo piano work "Estampes" ("Prints").

In the announced (and printed) program, Mr. Ax was going to play the entire Debussy work. But Mr. Gilbert explained that he and Mr. Ax had found the resonances between "Pagodes" and "Couleurs" so striking that they decided to go directly from the single Debussy movement into the Messiaen without a break.

Mr. Gilbert again proved a natural at giving audiences insider tips about music. Messiaen, a Roman Catholic steeped in religious mysticism, was inspired to write this work by a passage from the Book of Revelation that describes a wall of many colors in a celestial city. The score has elements of plainchant, Greek rhythms, chorales and, a Messiaen trademark, birdsong.

What kind of celestial city does it describe? Mr. Gilbert said that for him the music suggests not a walking tour but a slide show with vivid images that abruptly shift: an apt description.

Mr. Gilbert first had the orchestra illustrate his points by playing a chorale section that, despite astringent chords, had a singsong melody and then an outburst of birdcalls: an "aviary gone berserk," in Mr. Gilbert's words. The Debussy, Mr. Ax added, is also like a slide show, but of a Chinese city.

Mr. Ax played "Pagodes" with subdued beauty and crystalline sound. The Messiaen unfolded in shifting musical episodes with blocks of thick harmonies; modal strands of overlapping plainchant; chorales spiked with dissonance yet awesomely angelic. Mr. Ax was commanding in the difficult piano part, which is full of leaping chords and fitful, keyboard-spanning runs.

After the performance Zarin Mehta, the Philharmonic's president, took the stage to pay tribute to Mr. Ax, naming him an honorary member of the Philharmonic. In 1843, its second year, the Philharmonic established a program to designate honorary members of the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York (as the orchestra is formally known), Mr. Mehta explained. Among the 65 people to receive this honor were Mendelssohn, Liszt, Dvorak and Copland. There are only five living honorees: the conductors Pierre Boulez, Lorin Maazel and Zubin Mehta; the clarinetist Stanley Drucker; and the manager Carlos Moseley. Mr. Ax has now joined this roster. He seemed genuinely surprised, and though normally voluble, he was too overcome to speak.

In some performances of repertory staples, Mr. Gilbert has been a little cautious. Not in this Mahler Fifth. In the first movement, a funeral march, he took a daringly restrained tempo, creating intensity through emphatic execution and heaving, heavy power. In the wild Scherzo, he conveyed the music's rustic boisterousness while effectively setting up the strangely pensive passages that periodically interrupt the activity. He drew glowing string sound from the Philharmonic in the sublime Adagietto, and brought shape and steady flow to the Rondo-Finale, with its long stretches of scrambled counterpoint.

Each audience member was given a Post-it note to leave a message for Mr. Ax. In the lobby after the concert, several message boards were filled with congratulatory words for him, ranging from "You rock!" to specific recollections of favorite performances. I bet that Mr. Ax will find a place in his New York apartment to keep all of these heartening notes.
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