The splashiest podium arrival this season is Gustavo Dudamel, launching his highly anticipated tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. We're talking a second-coming level of publicity for that. Meanwhile, Alan Gilbert has taken the helm of the New York Philharmonic to a slightly less emphatic drumbeat, but it's a newsy development just the same, one filled with great promise.
But Maazel left a fabulously polished and responsive orchestra behind, allowing Gilbert an immediate comfort zone that has to be a great advantage as he applies his own stamp.
Reports of Gilbert's debut in mid-September, televised nationally on PBS, drew mixed responses, but I had a decidedly positive experience at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall last Saturday night, when the conductor led an intriguing program. It started with a work written by the Philharmonic's new, Finnish-born composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg (his appointment was an immediate sign of Gilbert's intentions in New York). Titled "EXPO," the piece was
commissioned by the orchestra and premiered at the season-opening gala. It wouldn't have been at all unusual had that been its only outing, since lots of orchestra routinely give limited exposure to new music, so it was doubly impressive to see Gilbert bring it back a few weeks later for the regular subscription crowd.
In just 10 minutes or so, Lindberg packs in a lot of brilliant material, suitable festive in overall effect, yet full of tension and import. The harmonic style is rich and flavorful, at once emphatically contemporary, yet grounded in good, old-fashioned tonality. The composer and conductor spent almost as long talking about the piece to the audience beforehand as it took to play the music itself. I didn't think the remarks were particularly smooth or informative (this was the final in a string of performances, so maybe they just ran out of steam), but it was a good way for people to get a more personal sense of both men.
The performance was startling in its visceral power. Even though I heard the orchestra in June (Maazel's farewell with Mahler 8), I was struck all over again by what a terrific ensemble this is, beautifully balanced section to section, so that every component functions for the good of the whole -- just like it should be, of course, but nothing you can ever take for granted.
Gilbert followed the Lindberg score with something more or less a century old, but just as modern in outlook -- the Symphony No. 2 by Charles Ives. I've said before that this should be as well known to American concert-goers as any staple from the German repertoire; this is our first great symphony and we should hear it often. Gilbert stressed equally the European roots and wonderfully quirky Ivesian touches in the score, fashioning a cohesive and involving performance. He drew from the strings particular richness.
After intermission, more Ives, this time a much more often encountered work, "The Unanswered Question." Unless my ears (a wee bit tired after a Met performance that afternoon) deceived me, there was a mishap toward the end, when the trumpet and flutes entered the same air space, but the performance was nonetheless arresting. And, in an unusual twist, the fade-out of the Ives score led directly into Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, with its revolutionary keyboard-only opening -- the effect was to provide an encouraging answer to Ives' question.
The soloist in the concerto was Emanuel Ax, who, as usual, delivered exceptional poetry and strength. Gilbert was a masterful partner, not just ensuring a smooth flow, but bringing the orchestra fully and dynamically into the dialog.
The Gilbert era is clearly going to be interesting and, I'd wager, quite eventful.
PHOTO OF ALAN GILBERT BY HAYLEY SPARKS COURTESY OF NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC