Culture Monster

All the Arts, All the Time

« Previous Post | Culture Monster Home | Next Post »

New York and its new musical director

September 18, 2009 |  3:00 pm


Alan Gilbert’s first gala opening concert as music director at Avery Fisher Hall received the classic mixed reviews from the East Coast press. “It was a great beginning,” concluded Anthony Tommasini in his New York Times review. “It was a disappointing beginning,” was Anne Migette’s conclusion in the Washington Post.

This is not a fair sampling. But what may be the larger problem for the New York Philharmonic is how little news the gala generated, despite a considerable buildup and a live telecast hosted by Alec Baldwin. Gilbert’s champions are certainly excited by a fresh new direction a 42-year-old New Yorker promises to bring to the country’s oldest orchestra. Even so, the one thing the new music director was not Wednesday night was exciting, however much some listeners appreciated his careful conducting of a new work by Magnus Lindberg, Messiaen’s “Poèmes pour Mi” and Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.”

Gilbert simply isn’t a gala kind of guy. Then again, Esa-Pekka Salonen wasn’t cracking jokes, performing sexy works and shooting off indoor fireworks at his first galas in Los Angeles either. It took him a long while to loosen up. And Gilbert, at least, seemed more comfortably at home in Fisher Thursday night when he began his first subscription concert with Mahler’s Third Symphony.

No conductor without a commitment to Mahler has any business in front of this orchestra. The composer himself was music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1909 to 1911, the year he died. A number of his successors championed Mahler long before his music became popular. When Leonard Bernstein became music director in 1958, he began the Mahler revival that catapulted the composer into the standard repertory.

The Third is Mahler’s longest symphony (Thursday’s performance lasted 96 minutes), and it is a young man’s music. Mahler wrote it in his 30s. Young conductors take to it. This was the work that Salonen learned in a matter of days in 1983 when he made his celebrated London debut at age 25 as a last-minute substitute for Michael Tilson Thomas, and it was also the work that he opened his first Los Angeles Philharmonic season as music director in 1992.

Gilbert’s Mahler Third was not particularly a young man’s Mahler. He was clearly aware of the New York Philharmonic’s Mahlerian DNA, and he knowledgeably tapped into the orchestra's incomparably robust Mahler sound and tradition.

Mahler thought of the Third as his Nature symphony. Summer marches in during the monumental first movement. A minuet for the flowers in the meadow is followed by a scherzo for the animals of the forest. The fourth movement is a short song for mezzo-soprano on a haunted midnight text by Nietzsche, and that leads into a song of angels with choruses of women and boys chiming in. The last movement is a beautiful, slow symphonic ode to love that in a great performance suffuses the hall with an aural glow.

The New York Philharmonic has recorded this symphony many times, and the ending of Bernstein’s live recording in 1986 is incomparably glorious. Boulez’s live recording is a cool look at ecology in all its natural wonder. Lorin Maazel’s recent release is a high-definition snapshot detailed enough to reveal every grain of sand and every leaf on the trees.

Gilbert synthesized all these approaches. He values clarity and instrumental details had great immediacy. There was terrific brass playing. The winds were lovely. The strings were full-toned and brilliantly polished.

The opening movement was an engaging collection of big effects. Ditto the second movement. Ditto the third. Excellent as all this was, Gilbert’s interpretation lacked personality, passion, individuality. But he had a wild card – his soloist Petra Lang.

The German mezzo sat straight-backed, impassive in a tight, glittery blue gown, stage front, hardly moving a muscle for a full hour before she stood to sing, as if her job were to look stoically beautiful.

Her performance was somewhere between camp and downright scary. She spit out consonants with ferocious intensity. When she sang the line “I have trespassed against the Ten Commandments,” she gave a look that said she knew exactly what that meant. I couldn’t get Bette Davis out of my mind.

She was some foil to the angelic American Boychoir and the Westminster Symphonic Choir’s chaste-sounding women. All of which made the last movement sound, I thought, too goody goody, a collection of big, round Hallmark sentiments to no real purpose.

For some, Gilbert comes as a breath of fresh air after his fussy predecessor, Maazel.  But Maazel was popular with the musicians and with audiences.  With Gustavo Dudamel about to begin in Los Angeles and Riccardo Muti, next year, in Chicago, the New York Philharmonic may not have an easy time branding the blander Gilbert. The task of filling seats for this orchestra is made doubly difficult in a city where hardly a week goes by when an important orchestra doesn’t visit either Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, enticing concertgoers with alternatives.

-- Mark Swed, reporting from New York

Photo: Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic at the Wednesday night gala in Avery Fisher Hall. Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times