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Gilbert's New Tenure

Alan Gilbert. (photo by Chris Lee)

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.

Edited to add: The reviews are in from the New York Times (by Anthony Tommasini) and the Los Angeles Times (by Mark Swed).

Edited to add: More feedback on the evening from the incomparable Opera Chic (in fantastic detail) and Sounds and Fury (kindly posted in the comments section earlier).

By Anne Midgette  |  September 16, 2009; 11:45 PM ET
Categories:  national , news  
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I've heard Gilbert twice at SFS, both times on programs combining recent works (Ades, Adams) with Beethoven. I agree with your take; there was not much excitement in the Beethoven, though the Ades and Adams were both knockout pieces he did well with.

The NYPO concert is on right now. Bearing in mind that I have TV speakers only, without a theater setup or hookup to my stereo, the march to the scaffold is not great. The opening had little menace and the big march tune is...well, as you say. Not exciting.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | September 17, 2009 1:40 AM | Report abuse

"He [Gilbert] even has a Philharmonic pedigree, since both parents were violinists with the orchestra."

I don't mean to be pedantic, but Mama Gilbert still is (Papa is retired).

I largely agree with your above comments on Gilbert and the concert, but differ somewhat on the matter of Fleming's performance and Lindberg's new work. My brief commentary can be read at:


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | September 17, 2009 2:56 AM | Report abuse

I could not disagree with you more. First of all, the New York Philharmonic is not a "stodgy, hidebound" orchestra at all, and has actually been offering some of the most diversified and interesting programming of any orchestr anywhere for many years,and has in fact,played much more new music than most other orchestras.
I hadn't heard much of his conducting, but I thought the Berlioz performance, which I saw and heard on PBS, was very exciting, and that Fleming sang gorgeously.
Only time will tell how things turn out with Gilbert and the orchestra, but I'm convinced that it's a very promising combination.

Posted by: Thehorn2 | September 17, 2009 10:40 AM | Report abuse

I found it interesting that Tommasini, who writes for a New York Paper, came through with a near-rave, whereas Swed in the L.A. Times was, shall we say, cool to the charms of the concert and very much in sync with you. Chacun a son gout and all that, and no doubt Tommasini arrived at the concert wanting to like it. I haven't heard it yet, so I can't add any opinion of my own. I note that prior commenters have also split on its merits

I do hope the NY Phil becomes (or stays; your choice) adventurous under Gilbert. I'm not sure how long any orchestra, no matter how high its status, can survive playing the rule of audio museum. When I can stream Messaien at work and listen to Ades on my iPod, I need much more than another Beethoven symphony to put my keister in a seat at the Kennedy Center. And I'm no kid; I heard Beecham and Walter in concert when young.

I do hope we will be able to look back on this concert as an auspicious beginning and not a harbinger of troubles ahead.

Posted by: BobL | September 17, 2009 2:02 PM | Report abuse

I too was disappointed in Gilbert's conducting of the 2009 NY Philharmonic Opening Night.

Yes, he was earnest and competent, but there is much more to music-making than that. One kept hoping and wishing for some inspired music making, strong, imaginative leadership with a distinctly personal point of view...with both sensitivity and drama in equal measure. All to often this was not the case with Gilbert.

The wonderful musicians of this great ensemble seemed curiously uninvolved and the sound of the orchestra was lacking in core and substance.

I applaud Gilbert's obvious intent to program 20th and 21st Century music. This is essential to any classical music organization. But lackluster conducting that does not lift the music off the page and transport the listener is merely competent and not revelatory.

Posted by: bobman1 | September 18, 2009 8:27 AM | Report abuse

I couldn't disagree more with your review, and I think the LA Times review was just silly. For 50 years the knock on the NYP has been that it was just a collection of great soloists, not a real ensemble. So they play like an ensemble and you say it lacks excitement? Because the march wasn't fast enough? As for the LAT, complaining that the soloist didn't sound "pretty" enough in a Messien work pretty much says all you need to know about him.

Posted by: groundhogdayguy | September 18, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

To my wife and me, the evening – on television -- was not a disappointing beginning to the next decade of New York City musical life under the living musical direction of Peter Gelb at the MET, Alan Gilbert at the New York Philharmonic, and George Steel at the New York City Opera. I only wish that we could have rearranged our work schedules (and afforded) to have been able to attend this opening event in New York City. (True, I don’t believe the evening featured a quartet of Cartier models in black and diamonds, and live leopards, in the lobby, as were featured at the San Francisco Symphony opening gala a few years back.) Given the WPAS and NSO orchestral line-up for the autumn, we were saddened at the end of the program when ‘Live from Lincoln Center’ announced that the next and last appearance of the New York Philharmonic this year on public television would be on New Years’ eve. We don’t expect that evening to feature works by Leon Kirchner, Kaija Saariaho, or David Rakowski. (We’ll also save our money and skip Riccardo Muti leading the NY Phil in Liszt, Elgar, and Prokofiev at the KC in November. And I can’t believe that the San Francisco Symphony is also bringing Liszt to the KC this season. Did the orchestras propose newer 20th or 21st century music, and WPAS President Neale Perl counter-offer with Liszt?)
As Renee Fleming fans, we were fascinated that Ms. Fleming respected Mr. Gilbert enough to perform, for an international television viewership, the difficult Messiaen song cycle, at his suggestion. We thought she performed the work beautifully, although we found the sub-titles a little small, and we could sense that this was an important and challenging assignment, which we still felt she achieved masterfully (and hope she will record). Perhaps it helped that even if it is impossible in this day and age to hear an important song-cycle such as Messiaen’s Poemes pour Mi or Messiaen’s Harawi (A Song of Love and Death) on local public radio, the second work was performed brilliantly less than a year ago by soprano Tony Arnold and pianist Jacob Greenberg, as part of a three-month fall season at the Library of Congress that also included music by the living composers Harbison, Ades, Kurtag, Carter, Lachenmann, Wuorinen, Shatin, Ancosta, Mumford, Burke, Meltzer, David Byrne, R.D. Burman, and Sapo Perapaskero. ...

Posted by: snaketime1 | September 20, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

(cont.) I suspect that in ten months time, we will count Alan Gilbert’s maiden concert as the highlight of the 2009-10 orchestral season. (I suspect that many critics on the Washington Post payroll would have wished that instead of the challenging Messiaen song-cycle, the New York Phil would have opened with Renee Fleming and Lou Reed duetting with each other, followed by an audience-friendly and participatory balloon drop.)

We also enjoyed the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, and I believe that it was probably better played than the Mahler Symphony #1 performed the same week in San Francisco by the San Francisco Symphony, and which received much less than glowing reviews.

Finally, I again wonder if racism and sexism lies at the root of Washington Post criticism of the careers of Kent Nagano, Elena Ulyanova, and Alan Gilbert.

Posted by: snaketime1 | September 20, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse

"I again wonder if racism and sexism lies at the root of Washington Post criticism of the careers of Kent Nagano, Elena Ulyanova, and Alan Gilbert."

I think that remark is out of line.

I am not a fan of Anne Midgette in any way, shape or form, but the last thing I would expect from her was racism or sexism.

I have never seen a single word she has written that might expose her to charges of racism or sexism.

Posted by: BartBrown1 | September 22, 2009 7:23 PM | Report abuse

I stand by my comment. Note that I did not accuse Anne Midgette of sexism.

My charge of racism is based upon Anne Midgette’s recent comments that she does not believe, or that she worries, that neither Kent Nagano in Munich, Germany nor Alan Gilbert in New York City (both of which are her present or former home cities) has the skills – the “chops” – for the current musical positions for which they were chosen.

She has also, in my view, exhibited no - or bare - interest in the musical work of African-American or African-European conductors and musicians during her tenure at the Washington Post. (Do you know when was the last time an African-American conductor such as Michael Morgan or John McLaughlin Williams was invited to lead the National Symphony Orchestra on a Kennedy Center subscription concert?)

My charge of sexism was against Robert Battey’s irrational – and spiteful --critique of Elena Ulyanova’s piano recital at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery/American Art Museum this past August. (Although there could also have been a racial component to his spite– as I believe that Ms. Ulyanova – as well as being very highly gifted musically from a very young age -- is of mixed European and Turkic ancestry – as are many Russians and East Europeans. It will be recalled that Mr. Battey [not musically gifted from a very young age] got his start as a Washington Post music critic because his mother was a Washington Post dance critic there; he having had no previous critical reputation.)

Remember, we today live in a world where the Kennedy Center Board of Directors – hence the nation -- bestows its highest artistic honor on Pete Townshend & Roger Daltrey of The Who, while ignoring Odetta and Mary Travers; and the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus – like Anne Midgette, a Yale graduate – speaks openly, on public television, about Barack Obama’s supposed “otherness”.

Posted by: snaketime1 | September 23, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

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