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Gilbert shows his way with composers
Peter Dobrin | Philadelphia Enquirer | 9 February 2008

Whatever else Alan Gilbert reveals about himself next month in his first concerts as music director-designate of the New York Philharmonic, it seems safe to say now that he knows how to rehearse, and put a personal imprint, on a difficult program.

At least in music he knows well, which was clearly the case Thursday night when he led the Philadelphia Orchestra in Verizon Hall.

In our Age of the Golden Chestnut, Gilbert made an evening of two novelties and one near-novelty. When Bartók's Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra is the most familiar work on the program page, you might expect to hear something on stage less meticulously worked out than the others.

But as wonderful as the Bartók was, Nielsen's Symphony No. 2, in its first Philadelphia Orchestra performance, was every bit as confident, and turned out to be a kind of confessional for the 40-year-old conductor.

Gilbert is on a Nielsen campaign (as was another Curtis-trained Philharmonic music director named Leonard Bernstein). He takes on the Symphony No. 3 Monday in Verizon with his alma mater's orchestra.

Nielsen's Symphony No. 2, with its subtitle "The Four Temperaments" (as in choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine), carries tremendous dramatic potential. Not merely satisfied with anger, Gilbert expressed the entire first movement in one muscular sweep. Was some of the detail lost? Yes, small corners of sweetness were slighted. But it was an act of invigoration, and especially satisfying to hear the Philadelphia strings, which can sometimes wallow in their own sound, move as immediately as they did.

Gilbert encouraged the orchestra to reach into its performance tradition in the melancholy third movement, drawing Brucknerian depth from the strings (Gilbert is also a violinist, and once was a substitute player in the orchestra).

He perhaps was also aware of the orchestra's tradition with Sibelius when he programmed Exquisite Corpse by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg. Composed in 2002 for the 75th anniversary of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (where Gilbert is chief conductor), Exquisite Corpse is one of those pieces whose opening dissonance and closely clustered chords make you feel surrounded by knives (à la Ligeti).

And then it warms over in an instant, Sibelius-like moment for the strings. Hillborg has a beautiful, liquid way of moving the piece from one section to the next, mindful of a larger emotional arc. And he is extremely skilled at evoking not just stabs and jabs, but also the feeling of being smothered or caressed.

As if that weren't enough chewy material, Bartók's Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra made a solidly expert impression with pianists Emanuel Ax and Yoko Nozaki, and percussionists Christopher Deviney and Don S. Liuzzi.

That's a lot of substance in one concert, but that's Gilbert. In coming weeks in various cities he'll lead Berio, Marc Neikrug, Steven Stucky, Daniel Börtz and, yes, more Nielsen.

Gilbert is ready to be the composers' champion. Are listeners ready to greet new sounds with open ears?