Davies Hall , San Francisco
The New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert, conductor
May 6, 2016
Beethoven—Egmont Overture, Opus 84
Beethoven—Symphony No. 7 in A major, Opus 92
Sibelius——-Symphony No. 7 in C major, Opus 105
Sibelius——-Finlandia, Opus 26
“My God!”, I thought. “They’re killers”!
Maybe it’s just Trump season and a reminder of what it’s like to be from New York. But I felt a sense of birth identity, as Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic brought down Davies Hall last night to wild screams. I don’t know if Gilbert is usually this energetic. Or if the orchestra is already preparing for its slightly terrifying new Music Director, Jaap van Zweden. Or if being a New Yorker simply means one is overpowering! Whatever the reason — and how about adding inspiration to the mix — this was the most satisfying Beethoven I’ve heard in years — and the most exciting ever viscerally, just plain electrifying.
The San Francisco Symphony is a powerful orchestra. But it’s Beethoven instincts under Michael Tilson Thomas are on the graceful and lyrical side. So when I cheer the New York Philharmonic for bringing us the most exciting Egmont Overture and Beethoven Seventh ever — I mean it. This was volatile, aggressive, big-orchestra Beethoven, the kind we used to hear from Krips, Steinberg, Szell, Kempe and Karajan. I’d mention Toscanini, except that Gilbert likes to hold cadences and Toscanini didn’t. But it was fast and explosive and emphatic. And not a hint of early music wheezing cliches. It’s nice to see Gilbert hasn’t given up, the way so many conductors have, and handed Beethoven over to the HIP scholars and their chamber orchestras. He performed it with six basses and most of the orchestra.
Winning features here were brass and timpani, soaring and pounding far more vividly than usual. Szell used to do that in the Seventh. Here he was outdone with gorgeous horns at the conclusion of the overture and the symphony’s first movement. So much of Beethoven depends on the timpanist/horn partnership. Hearing the players warm up was enough to indicate that letting loose this one would be quite the experience. We nearly heard a mini concert of the big moments in Egmont and Finlandia before the evening got started. I found this tantalizing. (Long gone is the old Ormandy-style etiquette, which forbade an orchestra to practice anything onstage from the program about to be performed, lest it be recognized.)
If there were any deficiencies, I suppose you could say Alan Gilbert suffers from the vice of his virtues. Phenomenal instincts for gleaming sonority and high energy are not matched by an inwardness to convey nostalgia and sadness. His slow movement in the Beethoven Seventh was a lacking in mystery, a guided tour of funerals rather than the thing itself.
I appreciated the sheer weight of this orchestra in Sibelius — nine basses — and its virtuosic beauty — something New York audiences don’t always perceive in unresponsive David Geffen Hall. Here, in a better acoustic, the Philharmonic showed itself to be stunningly world-class. Indeed, the New York strings evoked depths to match the great German orchestras. They reminded me of the London Symphony, which sounded so much better here on tour than in its challenged Barbican home. Our San Francisco Symphony doesn’t quite equal string sonority at that level.
Once again, though, I was disappointed by a missing element. This was galvanic Sibelius. And I loved the way Gilbert held back the final cadence of the Seventh Symphony — with drums breaking through the texture — usually limp and lame. But the beginning’s noble chorale didn’t radiate the sadness it should. Gilbert seemed to miss the meaning of the piece. The Seventh is an eerie metaphysical exploration. You are lost, soaring in space. For all the excitement, I never quite felt that.
I doubt even Karajan would have been more pulse-quickening in Finlandia. Gilbert went nearly crazy with brass and timpani–even adding an extra drum-roll, I suspect, on the last trombone chord of the introduction.
But the central hymn, for all its wonderful string depth over a bass drum roll, swept along with the patriotic fervor of a Buick. It was more “fast machine” than “uplift”.
The evening, as we see, was — if not life transforming — then surely an exciting event. And it reminded me enough of New York to be nostalgic. A white-haired old lady sitting in front of me was clearly from NYC, if voices are any guide. She seemed to be conducting the Beethoven Seventh on her lap — to show off she knew it — if I know New Yorkers. But she was half a beat behind. So I watched Gilbert with my right eye and was tormented by her tapping fingers through my left, until I had to hold up my program booklet to block her.
But I didn’t mind.
At the end of the concert she enthused “Wasn’t that a wonderful program!” Her voice would have shattered a wineglass.
“Killer!”, I replied.