Gilbert's New Tenure
NEW YORK, SEPT. 16: For some years now, the New York Philharmonic has struggled – like many other orchestras – to break free of its image as a conservative, hidebound and not very exciting bastion of the classical music traditions of yore. When it chose Lorin Maazel as music director in 2001 (he started in 2002), there was considerable protest in the press. Why not, ran the critics’ refrain, pick someone younger, someone American (though Maazel is American), someone who will focus more on music of our time and bring the Philharmonic into the present?
Be careful what you wish for.
Alan Gilbert, a 42-year-old conductor, began his long-awaited tenure Wednesday night at Avery Fisher Hall as the Philharmonic’s new music director. Gilbert, on paper, has all of the right qualifications: young (42 is young in conductor years), American, a serious musician with a great appetite for the contemporary. He even has a Philharmonic pedigree, since both parents were violinists with the orchestra. He has conducted around the world, had a couple of mid-level music directorships (including a brief stint at the Santa Fe Opera), made his Philharmonic debut in 2001. And his opening night program included a world premiere, as well as a lengthy song cycle by the 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen -- a strong concentration on the recent and contemporary, that is, in contrast with the usual gala opening night fare of popular standards. The latter were represented, after intermission, by Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.
(read more after the jump)
All the ingredients, in short, were there. All that was missing was the excitement.
The very first notes Gilbert conducted in his role as the orchestra’s music director were a brand-new work: a nice symbol of a new beginning. And Magnus Lindberg, who with this concert started a two-year term as the orchestra’s composer-in-residence, provided “EXPO,” a carefully plotted, earnest, and sometimes attractive piece. In Lindberg’s terms, the work was even short and lighthearted, but neither “short” nor “lighthearted” are adjectives with which Lindberg is overly familiar. Juxtaposing soft and loud, string and wind, the piece exuded a kind of muted intensity, as if it were trying to play down its own earnestness.
Earnestness was a hallmark of Gilbert’s, as well. His efforts to convey notes and nuances were palpable. The effect, though, smacked of paint-by-numbers: there were notes, and you could sense what they were supposed to express, and go along with it. Whether it was actually moving was another matter. In Messiaen, the ingredients didn’t quite blend. “Poèmes pour Mi” for soprano and orchestra, written in 1937 for the composer’s wife, blend religious and earthly love in a Messiaenic haze of colored sounds that chime and spin and hover in their own distinct atmosphere. Messiaen’s music can sound light and cool, but here it felt too big for the soprano Renée Fleming, who emoted with a will, perhaps too much, and was often covered by the surging orchestra. The songs are gorgeous, but they didn’t sit in a part of Fleming’s voice that helped set off either them or her to absolutely best advantage.
The Symphonie fantastique, though, was the real disappointment. This is a piece that the orchestra knows well, a big, surging, Romantic outpouring. In Gilbert’s hands, it became downright dry. Instead of hearing nature and love and the gallows and a witches’ Sabbath, I felt I was hearing notes, executed carefully, or not so carefully. The orchestra seemed willing enough to follow the leader; it was just not clear that he had a lot to say.
I was crestfallen, because I have liked Gilbert when I have heard him before, and I – like many of my colleagues – have been rooting for him to do well in New York. His ideas are great; he understands the challenges facing the orchestra; he has been cultivating a popular touch (going out with some of the musicians and glad-handing in the crowd lined up in Lincoln Center Plaza earlier in the afternoon for tickets). I only hoped that what I was hearing was some kind of first-night inhibition. But it was a disappointing beginning.
Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | September 17, 2009 1:40 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: ACDouglas1 | September 17, 2009 2:56 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Thehorn2 | September 17, 2009 10:40 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: BobL | September 17, 2009 2:02 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: bobman1 | September 18, 2009 8:27 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: groundhogdayguy | September 18, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: snaketime1 | September 20, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: snaketime1 | September 20, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: BartBrown1 | September 22, 2009 7:23 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: snaketime1 | September 23, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.