Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic in Webern, Mozart, and Schumann

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Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic. Photo Chris Lee.

Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic. Photo Chris Lee.

New York Philharmonic
Avery Fisher Hall

Tuesday, December 29, 2009, 7:30 P.M.
Wednesday, December 30, 2009, 7:30 P.M.
Saturday, January 2, 2010, 8:00 P.M.

Alan Gilbert, Conductor
Leif Ove Andsnes, Piano

Webern, Im Sommerwind
Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K. 488
Webern, Symphony, Op. 21
Schumann, Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61

Unfortunately I was not able to attend Alan Gilbert’s first concerts of the season, and this was my first experience of his work with the New York Philharmonic. I did hear his guest concert with the Boston Symphony last spring—a major event, as it included his magnificent Ives Fourth. It happens that both the Boston and the New York program were quite similar and revealed similar qualities in Gilbert’s conducting, although his approach was quite different. Both included a little-known early work by a major twentieth-century composer, and a concerto with a highly-respected pianist, as well as a symphony—eccentric symphonies in both cases, I’m tempted to add.

Gilbert’s careful, detailed, even over-respectful approach was more successful with Webern’s Im Sommerwind, largely because it is a more interesting piece than Sibelius’ Night Ride and Sunrise, in which the ostinato background figures, might have benefitted from a little blurring. It’s also fair to say that Gilbert’s rapport with what is now his own orchestra appears to be closer than with the BSO, who seemed a bit stiff, even peevish at the time. The Rachmaninoff Paganini Variations couldn’t have enjoyed a more vivid, fresher interpretation than Stephen Hough’s urgent, razor-sharp virtuosity. Gilbert’s accompaniment was exceptional not only in the responsive playing he elicited from the BSO, but in his total assimilation of the pianist’s perspective on the music. He showed a similar desire to stay with the soloist in Leif Ove Andsnes’s reading of Mozart’s Concerto in A Major, K. 488, although the collaboration remained a bit more on a conceptual level, as Andsnes is not as compelling a musician as Hough. As I took my seat in Avery Fisher Hall, however, my strongest feeling of anticipation concerned the Schumann Second, for which I have a special affection. Schumann wove archaic forms—the chorale, counterpoint, and the toccata—into the romantic symphony with his own quirky originality. I love its running energy countered by syncopated accents and dissonant chords and passing harmonies. (Its complex textures cry out for period instruments, and in fact Gardiner’s with his Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique is one of the best.) By treating it well, a conductor can make a lifelong friend in me.

As successful (even brilliantly so in the case of the Ives) as the BSO concert was, Gilbert, who was wearing tails, seemed a trifle inhibited (although this did not affect his music-making), and, youthful in his early forties, he is the sort of man who instantly shows how obsolete they are. In Avery Fisher Hall, he wore a loose-fitting black jacket, which became him well and allowed him plenty of room to move. Alan Gilbert is a big man, tall and solid, but he is extraordinarily nimble and active, as he moves from side to side, addressing details in various parts of the orchestra, and he is extremely attentive to all of them. He splits the first and second violins, as he should, and spreads the orchestra out from wall to wall on stage—a solution which, as I’ve noted, has worked well for the American Symphony Orchestra in the problematic acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall. I’ve never heard the New York Philharmonic (or any orchestra) sound better in the hall. The textures were clear in every work, from Webern’s very large orchestra in Im Sommerwind to the chamber ensemble of his Symphony. He produced a sober, but very appealing string tone that was not unlike Masur’s, but more transparent. Gilbert also showed considerable discretion in dynamics, never pushing the sound level to a point where it orchestra became harsh and muddy. Some audience members may find the dynamics restricted, but I didn’t, and I have no doubt that he is putting Avery Fisher Hall, in its present state, to its best use. I should also mention the the audience was plentiful and enthusiastic, well-distributed among the age groups. Things seem to be going swimmingly for the New York Philharmonic under their new music director.

Webern’s Im Sommerwind, a youthful essay in the lush late-romanticism of its time (1904). It was never performed in Webern’s lifetime. A performing edition was only prepared for the 1962 Webern Festival in Seattle. The work is steeped in the music of Richard Strauss, and it remains a curiosity, but a poetic and seductive one, and I could easily listen to it again from time to time. Although Webern wrote it for a large orchestra with six horns, he avoided heavy tutti and created delicate and interesting effects amidst clear textures. Gilbert managed balances carefully, as well as the structure and dramatic moments of the work, allowing us to listen to the music more than fairly, and showing a sensitive ear for its harmonic, melodic, and tonal beauties.

The orchestra produced a transparent, beautifully balanced sound in Mozart’s K. 488. Vibrato was discreet, as were portamenti and the other devices of traditional Viennese style. Gilbert’s approach was unaffected and focussed on Mozart’s music. The lower strings were strong without becoming thick or heavy, and the double basses played with litheness and clarity. Due largely to Andsnes’ extroverted view of the work, there was a tendency to restrain the lyrical and to project the most energetic passages. I find a heavy, pedantic quality in Andsnes’ playing, which made his K. 488 somewhat less than fulfilling. His phrasing, for example, of the wistful second subject in the first movement is a trifle fussy and crabbed. The orchestra followed along faithfully and in detail. The performance became more satisfying as it went along, I found, and I enjoyed the flow and articulation of the slow movement, as well as the energy and exuberance of the finale.

Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21, one of his masterpieces, was a marvel. The orchestra, reduced to chamber proportions, produced gorgeous, elegant sounds, even in Avery Fisher Hall, again without any overt attempt to imitate the Vienna Philharmonic. As the recent concerts of the Berlin Philharmonic showed, this music really benefits from beautiful playing. (Younger readers may wonder why I mention this, but remember, I first heard this music in Robert Craft’s bone dry Columbia recordings.) The musical structure of each movement, even the exiguous theme and variations, was absolutely clear as well. This was certainly the most satisfying performance I have heard of this wonderful, if dauntingly concentrated music, and Mr. Gilbert and his orchestra earned a well-deserved ovation for it. He introduced the piece with a brief introduction, which he shared with the orchestra’s manager and one of the musicians, basically trying to get the audience to relax and open their ears. The speakers were engaging, witty, and polished, if not as relaxed as they tried to appear. If these sessions are now a regular feature of New York Philharmonic concerts, they are an entirely welcome one. My only regret is that they did not play the symphony a second time, which, given its brevity, would not have been hard to do. For maximum benefit, the encore should have been unannounced.

And so, how did Schumann’s great, richly allusive C Major Symphony fare? The string ensemble, so nicely balanced between the rich and the lean, with its strong, colorful lower strings, which served Mozart so well, was, with larger forces, wonderfully suited to Schumann’s counterpoint and energized string figurations. The inner voices and passing harmonies came through splendidly. Mr. Gilbert had clearly put the score through his usual close scrutiny and made a dedicated—and entirely successful—effort to let us hear it all. Amidst all this, the phrasing and tone of the wind players was exquisite. The architecture—and the architectural quality—of the symphony, especially the first movement, came through brilliantly. The dramatic chord introducing the second part of the slow introduction, un poco più vivace, has an especially cogent significance, as it marks a change in the character of the 6/4 meter, and the interrelationship between it and the figures in dotted rhythm, ultimately a change in Schumann’s line of thought, as he gradually approaches the Allegro, ma non troppo. The winds were able to come through without obscuring the strings’ inner texture, reinforcing Schumann’s occasionally surprising harmonies. An accacciatura from Gb to F in the horns marked an especially striking dissonance. Gilbert really wanted us to be listening to the details of Schumann’s composition, and he avoided excessive gesture or excitement. This containment felt just right, until he came to the concluding section marked, Con fuoco, when he pushed the tempo and urged the musicians into a more urgent and more heated mood. The excitement came just at the right moment, and the movement ended in a blaze of high spirits. Similarly, in his very clean and detailed Scherzo, he raised the pitch in the coda, letting loose a burst of energy, before the introspective third movement, which, with his sensitivity to its mood and his control of all the various lines at once, was especially fully realized. His measured approach resulted in a finale with clear lines and finely judged tempi and proportions. The triumphant conclusion was thoroughly This was a penetrating and deeply satisfying performance. I can imagine Mr. Gilbert returning to Schumann’s Second a few years from now with a more relaxed confidence and creating more of a sense of spontaneity, but, as it was, his interpretation delved further than most, and remains an outstanding achievement.

At this listening, as always, I listened to the symphony as absolute music. Two of Schumann’s symphonies are at least partly programmatic: the First and the Third. I am happy to accept the Second and the Fourth as absolute music. Hence I was challenged and fascinated by Alan Gilbert’s remarks in the program: “I think that it’s a real confessional for Schumann, one that contains three elements: there is the spiritual ideal, which is represented always by the brass; there is the feminine ideal, represented by the winds; and there is Schumann himself, represented by the strings. These three elements are constantly swirling around, It;s a fascinating piece: obviously you can listen to it as a straight piece of music, but if you start to go beneath the surface you will see that there’s a kind of quest that Schumann is undertaking to try to find out how these three elements reconcile. […] When you really start to look at this symphony, you see that this piece is a kind of autobiography of Schumann. It really tells a story that has to do with Schumann’s quest for love, and also his struggle with composition.” None of this ever occurred to me before, even during Mr. Gilbert’s performance, but I’d invite you to consider it in the context of Schumann’s own interpretation of the symphony, which he set down in a letter to D. G. Otten, the Music Director in Hamburg, who asked him for interpretive advice: “”I wrote my symphony in December, 1845, and I sometime fear my semi-invalid state can be divined from the music. I began to feel more myself when I wrote the last movement, and was certainly much better when I finished the whole work. All the same it reminds me of dark days. Your interest in a work so stamped with melancholy proves your real sympathy.” In fact the last movement, which is more grounded in hope than in triumph, is a testament to the recovery he perceived at the time. As he approached the work of composition, he wrote to Mendelssohn in September 1845 “for several days there’s been much drumming and trumpeting in me (trumpet in C); I don’t know what will come out of it. His immediate inspiration did not come until December, when he heard a performance of Schubert’s C Major symphony. Mr. Gilbert’s remark makes one wonder whether there is such a thing as absolute music, but Schumann’s life was as much made of music as of experience.

One can only hope that Alan Gilbert’s tenure with the New York Philharmonic will be a long one. In his beginnings his intellect and integrity have shone through. One couldn’t wish for better qualities in a music director. It will be a richly rewarding experience to follow his development over the years.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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