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Giddy Freedom (a Little Mambo!), as Well as Pianistic Elegance and Wit
Yefim Bronfman Joins Philharmonic for Tchaikovsky Concerto
Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim | The New York Times | 29 September 2013

Work began in earnest on Thursday evening at Avery Fisher Hall for the New York Philharmonic after a weeklong flirtation with film music and Wednesday's season-opening gala. But there were many moments during this first subscription concert, in which Alan Gilbert conducted works by Ravel, Bernstein and Tchaikovsky, when the musicians seemed to be having far too much fun to justify the word "work."

For starters, Mr. Gilbert could not stop dancing. His conducting is always physically animated, but in Ravel's "Alborada del gracioso" and Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances From West Side Story," the Latin rhythms took shape in expressive body movements that ranged from a quick forward snap of the shoulder and a slight twitch of the hips to the theatrical flamenco arm gesture with which he brought the "Alborada" to a close.

The orchestra responded with a performance that, while not always tidy, was exciting and free. The symphonic arrangements of Bernstein's dances require a large orchestra to change on a dime, imitating a small jazz band in one instant and rolling out a plush carpet of Romantic strings the next. In the "Prologue," the eight double basses were especially convincing in jazz mode; the percussion section was perhaps too spread out physically to ensure tight cohesion. The brass players brought a frenzied, sexy abandon to the "Mambo" that would have surely been gratifying to Bernstein.

In the second half, the orchestra was joined by the pianist Yefim Bronfman in a performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 that managed to retain the first half's sense of freedom combined with a great deal of polish. Mr. Bronfman is this season's Mary and James G. Wallach artist in residence with the Philharmonic and will return regularly in chamber recitals, concerts of contemporary music and a minifestival comprising the complete Beethoven piano concertos.

Given Mr. Bronfman's versatility and technical mastery, it is surprising that this was his first performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto. In remarks made before the season announcement, Mr. Bronfman attributed his reticence to excessive early exposure: At 12, he attended the finals of the Tchaikovsky piano competition in Moscow, where he heard — or felt as if he heard — the concerto performed 12 times by 12 pianists.

Perhaps there was wisdom in the long wait. While many young pianists attack the work with competitive athleticism, Mr. Bronfman, now 55, played it with elegance and wit. He is also capable of playing with enormous power, and he took the final Allegro at a speed that would have left many younger players gasping for breath.

But his musical maturity showed through in his sensitivity to the work's quiet passages and the piano's interaction with the orchestra. In one instance in the first movement, he matched his timbre perfectly to the dry, delicate sound of the pizzicato strings that echoed him. He brought a sunny sweetness to a melody in the high register of his piano that was reflected in the big, smiling tutti Mr. Gilbert drew from the orchestra. In the slow movement, marked "Andantino semplice," he heeded the call for simplicity, playing with a tiptoeing lightness that allowed the elegance of the oboe and cello phrases to come to the fore.