Saturday, June 26, 2010

finally reviewing gilbert's philharmonic

Thursday, June 24 2010

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Christine Brewer, Jane Henschel, Anthony Dean Griffey, Eric Owens, soloists
New York Choral Artists

Magnus Lindberg, Al largo
Beethoven, Missa solemnis

I have waxed poetic on this blog about the arrival of Alan Gilbert at the New York Philharmonic and all it portends. So I hope it isn't too weird that Thursday night I actually attended my first concert of Gilbert conducting the Phil. Much has been made (by myself especially) about his penchant for intriguing programming, though reviews of his actual podium skills, and the sound of the orchestra, have been mixed. It's a divide between many of the big critics, who mostly love him , and a few stalwarts (including many of my younger musician friends) who think he's mostly terrible.

Going into the concert, I had fairly high expectations: I have been rooting for Gilbert since Day 1, and hoped that his intellectual curiosity would be matched by a sensational performance. Ending the season with a 25-minute world premiere and a Beethoven choral masterpiece that isn't the Ninth Symphony is a brave move, indicative of Gilbert's transformative year. Which is why it was so disappointing that, despite some exhilarating moments, the performance on Thursday was mostly lackluster.

I'm a big fan of all of Magnus Lindberg's output, from the punkrock prickliness of Kraft to the heightened lyricism of the Clarinet Concerto. That latter work, though rigorously complex and retaining much of Lindberg's avant-garde spirit, pointed towards a new, tonal, and even neo-Romantic direction for the composer. I enjoyed EXPO, the other Lindberg bookend to the Philharmonic season, which was not particularly interesting but made for a dashing fanfare and exciting start to Gilbert's tenure.

Unfortunately, the newest Lindberg work for the Philharmonic was just as uninteresting but dragged for nearly half an hour. Reading Lindberg's notes for Al largo, I was excited to hear him compare it to Verklärte Nacht, and imagined a dripping, chromatic orchestral gem. But what the Philharmonic delivered was a rambling, sappy, and shapeless work. It opened with booming brass fanfares (kudos especially to the badass trombones) and tense strings, set to a driving rhythm that seemed to promise an engaging score. For all its filmic effects, though, it lacked a sense of cinematic scope: some essential ingredient was missing to create that bigger picture which a piece this long desperately needs. There were a handful of pretty moments, especially a lithe flute chorale accompanied by cascading piano, and one Kraft-like awesome oboe solo, each gesture placed between a piercing high note and a guttural low growl. The work just traipsed along; despite recurring motives, Lindberg's writing still felt unfocused.

A gleaming chord towards the end followed by an orchestral eruption promised a stirring conclusion, but was interrupted by a strange (but well-played) horn solo, and suddenly the piece just sputtered out. Some ambiguous endings raise intriguing and difficult questions, but this one left me cold, my mind blank. Gilbert conducted a broad beat, but its strongest quality, the sensitive and swirling orchestration, often seemed lost in muddiness (possibly due to the Avery Fisher's lethal acoustics).

After two weeks of mostly-brilliant Beethoven courtesy of Haitink and Chicago, I was curious to see how the Philharmonic would sound in the gargantuan Missa Solemnis. I know the piece only from recordings, but even in those it bristles with tremendous power. Alas, on Thursday evening this force was often overwhelming, lacking the nuance and shape required for its seventy-plus minutes. It began well, a steady and majestic Kyrie and a well-matched quartet of soloists alternating with chorus. Eric Owens' bass was rich and deep, perhaps the best voice of the four. Not far into the Kyrie, though, the blend between orchestra and chorus shifted, and soon the orchestra became nearly inaudible and Beethoven's careful balancing of each ensemble skewed.

This continued through the Gloria, with a fuzziness and lack of clarity tempering Gilbert's passionate conducting. It sometimes felt like the orchestra was just along for the ride with the chorus blaring at full roar. As the movement went on, the unrestrained chorus became more problematic, and the work gradually lost that sparkle with which Beethoven imbued it. Luckily, the beginning of the Credo had a degree of refinement, as Gilbert delicately traced the terraced dynamics, holding back until the sudden jolts of loudness. But the constant barrage of sound quickly returned, leading to an unwieldy fugue amended only by a glowing Resurrection and tenderly sung Amen.

The Sanctus, with its eerie orchestral harmonies and hushed chorus, contained the first emotional music of the evening. And the Benedictus was truly miraculous: concertmaster Glenn Dictererow made his violin sing with his delightfully old-world vibrato over a haze of weeping strings. Gilbert seemed to finally take command of the orchestra and chorus, leading rather than following, and producing a focused, rounded sound. All four soloists were at their best in the pensive Agnus Dei; Owens powerfully intoned "Miserere," and Christine Brewer evoked Wagner in her crushing solos. The end, despite crisp trumpet playing and those ubiquitous Beethoven timpani smashes, seemed to drag on forever before the rousing final bars.

Maybe the Philharmonic should have concluded the season even more boldly, with the triumph of Le Grand Macabre. It would have made a more noticeable splash than this under-rehearsed performance. Hopefully Thursday was not indicative of the quality of this past season under Gilbert. It does remind me, though, that inventive programming (this concert sounded fantastic on paper) does not always add up to a great evening.

Quick note: Much ink has been spilled about the role of electronics in the concert hall--projecting visuals during Brahms symphonies? A live Twitter stream floating above the performers' heads? Robot conductors leading cyborg musicians? While people debate whether you should be able to live-tweet your symphony concert, more significant egregious electronic errors crop up in our major concert halls. Listen up, New York Phil: you do not need to project English supertitles for a Mass. It's super-distracting and almost a joke considering that "Lord, have mercy" stayed up on that screen for about ten minutes. I'm not even sure that anyone needs to know the translation of the Mass text (Martin Luther might disagree), but if they do they can read along in the program book (the lighting in Avery Fisher is such that it's pretty easy to spend your whole time reading the program notes, a favorite activity of its wizened audience). Gestures like this dumb down performances and give the audience yet another way to amuse themselves instead of engaging with the music.


  1. "It does remind me, though, that inventive programming (this concert sounded fantastic on paper) does not always add up to a great evening."

    Nor a season, or a music directorship.

    Here's hoping that AG's execution will match his programming ideas and intentions in the years to come.