Music review: Alan Gilbert’s debut with the New York Philharmonic


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As far as New York Philharmonic season-opening galas go, Alan Gilbert’s Wednesday night in Avery Fisher Hall is said to have been daring. Nothing outrageous mind you, not that the relatively sober-seeming audience should have objected to a little musical hanky-panky. Many Wall Street chance-takers are New York Philharmonic patrons, and they were in attendance, to hear the AIG and other banking chit-chat.

But Gilbert, 42 and a native New Yorker, son of two New York Philharmonic fiddlers (his mother still sits in the first violin section), did some things differently, even boldly. He began with a new work written for the occasion (the first time at such an event since Leonard Bernstein commissioned Copland for the opening of Lincoln Center nearly half a century ago). Renée Fleming was a sure-thing stellar soloist, but the soprano sang an early song cycle by Olivier Messiaen. In 1988, New York Philharmonic audiences noisily stormed out when then-music director Zubin Mehta programmed the French composer’s “Turangalila” Symphony during a regular subscription series.


The orchestra has worked hard to get the word out that this is no longer an ensemble headed by a senior music director (as it had been for 18 years under Kurt Masur and Lorin Maazel). The concert was telecast live over PBS. The morning dress rehearsal was opened to the public for free. Despite a morning that threatened rain, one couple from Staten Island showed up at 4:30 a.m. I rode by Lincoln Center in a cab from the airport at 7, and it looked like a couple of hundred were patiently waiting for the rehearsal, which would not begin for another three hours.

For all that, the atmosphere Wednesday night felt only moderately celebratory. Gilbert is a likable, capable conductor. He makes sense of the music he conducts. He appears down-to-earth. He can whip up a certain amount of excitement, but he lacks charisma, which his champions read as seriousness.

Magnus Lindberg’s lively 10-minute “EXPO,” the new work, was, nonetheless, a crowd pleaser from a Finnish composer whom Gilbert has appointed composer-in-residence. A musical soul mate of Esa-Pekka Salonen, Lindberg is known to Los Angeles Philharmonic audiences as a musical wild man, a kinetic composer who is both a harmonically sophisticated and flamboyant noisemaker.

“EXPO” consists of a series of contrasting flashy flourishes and relaxed lyricism. Bursting with orchestral color, the score also plays around with French Impressionist clichés and has something close to a Hollywood ending, which, I think, was meant humorously.

The performance was not witty. Gilbert paid attention to rhythmic intricacy, instrumental balance and overall orchestral virtuosity. Ten minutes passed pleasurably, but I wonder if many found this music to take home with them.

Fruits may well develop from the Lindberg-New York Philharmonic relationship, and perhaps this was just a bottle of excellent fizzy Champagne sent by a difficult composer to break down initial resistance. Messiaen’s “Poèmes pour Mi,” next, fit Fleming well. Written in 1936 for the French composer’s first wife, Clair Delbos (whose nickname was Mi), the nine songs to texts by the composer are a devout Catholic’s first attempt at sensually commingling his spiritual love with the more earthly brand (Messiaen got sexier in music as he got older and moved on to a second, younger wife).


Gilbert seemed more interested in Messiaen’s glittery use of the orchestra than Fleming’s famed tone, often forcing her into an uncomfortable sound should she choose to be heard. That wasn’t ineffective, but may not have had Gilbert’s desired effect: It was Fleming’s intensity that most kept me riveted.
By those standards, Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” was carefree. Gilbert conducted without a score and with far greater expressive freedom than he showed in the evening’s first half. Gilbert here blunted Maazel’s razor-sharp precision for the sake of a bit more warmth. Mostly the “Symphonie Fantastique” moved along without unusual incident.

Still, the score didn’t sound as magnificently strange as it did under Pierre Boulez, nor was it the head trip it was under Leonard Bernstein, two former New York Philharmonic music directors who, like Gilbert, were in their 40s when they took over the orchestra. Toscanini and Mehta were exactly Gilbert’s age when their names entered the New York Philharmonic roster. The new music has a lot yet to live up to. But he also has time on his side.

-- Mark Swed, reporting from New York

Photos of Alan Gilbert, top, and with soprano Renée Fleming. Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times.