Alan Gilbert ended his eight-year tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, America’s oldest and once-leading orchestra, on Monday night as many a conductor ends (or begins) a music directorship — with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Beyond that, next to nothing was normal.
Even the Monday part proved a little odd. Most people don’t voluntarily leave a major post at the beginning of the week, as we were reminded by the exit of the White House communications director earlier in the day. In classical music, you say goodbye with a big weekend concert blowout. Monday is the slowest day of the week for selling tickets.
In fact, Gilbert’s last concerts in the orchestra’s home at Lincoln Center in New York went pretty much by the book with regular weekend performances of Mahler’s challenging Seventh Symphony. That’s not as big as the Mahler’s Eight (“Symphony of a Thousand”) that Gilbert’s predecessor chose for his final performances, but Gilbert made a major statement by calling the program “A Concert for Unity” and inviting musicians from many of the world’s political hot spots to participate, as well as such superstars as Yo-Yo Ma and Wynton Marsalis.
Some observers have found Gilbert less than charismatic, but New York’s top critics weighed in, noting his admirable ambition to expand the role of an orchestra that had become conservative and insular in its music and in the community, while keeping his ego out of his performances. In a final demonstration of his efforts to reach the people, Gilbert left New York by conducting the orchestra’s free summer concerts in New York City parks.
After that things started getting weird. Last week in Vail, Colo., Gilbert conducted five major symphonies, including the Mahler Seventh and Beethoven’s Ninth, as part of the New York Philharmonic’s annual summer residency in the mountain resort. Gilbert also gave the world premiere of a work by Julia Adolphe, a star USC composition student.
But Gilbert’s actual farewell was even farther from home, with the New York Philharmonic placed on a makeshift outdoor stage erected on the field of Santa Barbara City College’s La Playa Stadium. Bleacher seats overlooked the ocean. The concert celebrated the 70th anniversary of Music Academy of the West. With the exception of a few VIP seats up front, tickets were $10. More than 7,000 attended, prompting officials to claim it the largest classical music event in the city’s history.
The concert itself was easily as much about the Music Academy, the city and the college as it was about Gilbert and his New York orchestra, which was completing a four-year collaboration with the school. (The orchestra doesn’t quite know what to do with itself in the summer and moves around a lot.) The evening began with self-congratulatory speeches by administrators and the mayor, while the sun set gorgeously in the background. It took a while, but Gilbert was finally given a chance to say what great players and people his musicians are, and the mayor read a proclamation making Monday Alan Gilbert Day in Santa Barbara.
Some thought is required in choosing what, if anything, should precede Beethoven’s Ninth. In Germany, the symphony often stands alone, letting the composer’s democratic idealism speak for itself, as was the case when it was played last month for world leaders during the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg. Jeffrey Kahane began his Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performance in April with an insightful personal talk about the music and its meaning. A couple of weeks ago, Gustavo Dudamel set the Beethoven Ninth tone at the Hollywood Bowl with Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.”
And Sunday night in London, a former assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Xian Zhang, began a long concert at the Proms with Scottish composer James MacMillan’s moving 45-minute “A European Requiem,” full of Brexit connotations — the “Ode to Joy,” with which Beethoven ends his symphony, being the European Union’s anthem.
The tone for Monday’s “Ode to Joy” was more about joy than context. Here it was the New York Philharmonic’s current assistant conductor Joshua Gersen conducting the Music Academy Festival Orchestra, made up of the high-level summer students, in Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Three Latin-American Dances.” Musically, these lively Latin riffs on Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” seemed too trivial, especially given that one of the latest works by Frank (who is an academy resident composer this summer) is her “Conquest Requiem,” which speaks to the democratic issues of our time.
But the Bernstein connection was apt, since Gilbert seemed to take a few cues from Bernstein’s 1964 New York Philharmonic recording of Beethoven’s Ninth when his orchestra came on stage. Like Bernstein but with even greater accentuation, Gilbert punched out rhythms aggressively in the first movement and ended the symphony with massive amounts of gusto.
The brash amplification Monday even sounded like the crudely mastered current CD version of the Bernstein performance. Overall, though, Gilbert couldn’t always maintain interest or dramatic tension. The second movement had less rhythmic definition and propulsion than the first (and needed more). The lyrical rhapsody in the slow movement may simply have been impossible given how little the loudspeakers allowed for sweetness in the strings or bloom in the winds. The vocal soloists in the “Ode to Joy” Finale — Susanna Phillips, Sasha Cooke (who was between performances as Steve Jobs’ wife in “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” at Santa Fe Opera), Joseph Kaiser and Morris Robinson — were luxury casting, as was the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
But where was the feeling of celebration? What a happy moment this might have been had all the instrumentalists and singers, students and faculty, joined in the performance. Instead, there was the sad spectacle of a cold, cold orchestra. Gilbert worked it up to a frenzy, but the players acted unmoved by the occasion.
There was no acknowledgment of its music director from the orchestra during the bows — no tapping of bows on stands, practically no glances from the players at the conductor. Gilbert shook hands his with his concertmaster and his stand partner, but it also seemed as though, to the orchestra, this had been more a job than an ode to joy.
Is it too L.A. to suggest that appearances matter? I hope the academy students noticed that when Master Chorale Music Director Grant Gershon hugged Gilbert the stage suddenly became radiant, despite the orchestra musicians pointedly looking the other way. The fireworks over the ocean that followed also helped.