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Going Back to School and Finding Excitement

By Allan Kozinn, The New York Times
April 14, 2010
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If Alan Gilbert’s concerts with the New York Philharmonic were consistently played with the sense of excitement that enlivened his performance with the Juilliard Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall on Monday evening, perhaps we would hear less grumbling about his supposed lack of charisma.

Nothing Mr. Gilbert did on Monday seemed different from what he does across 65th Street, at Avery Fisher Hall. The program, with works by Ligeti, Beethoven, Schoenberg and Mozart, was something he might have done on a subscription program. And it is not as if the Philharmonic played badly for him, just that there is less fire than there ought to be. Maybe the Philharmonic players need to get in touch with their inner music students.

An early measure of Mr. Gilbert’s success with his alma mater’s orchestra was the ease with which he pulled Ligeti’s “Atmosphères” out of the orbit of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which brought this harmonically dense score an unlikely popularity. Readings of the work almost inevitably bring the film to mind, but Mr. Gilbert’s focus on texture and topography — the many levels of pianissimo within certain chaotic, whispered violin and viola passages, for example — kept the association purely musical.

By beginning with the Ligeti, Mr. Gilbert also quickly put a spotlight on the ensemble’s virtuosity: producing the score’s muffled string clusters; shrill, fortissimo woodwind dissonances; and tactile, buzzing brass chords calls for technique beyond the normal requirements of orchestral performance.

The program’s other 20th-century work, Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra (Op. 16), from 1909, poses different challenges. This is late Romanticism at heart; Schoenberg still had a way to go before perfecting his 12-tone method. But it has its share of complexity. The trick here is to cloak its thorny touches in the beauty of conventional timbres without removing their bite entirely. Fleeting problems of ensemble unity, particularly in the opening “Vorgefüle” (“Premonitions”), created only a slight distraction. Mostly, Mr. Gilbert drew a lush, precise performance, shaped with a flexibility that made these pieces intoxicating.

Mr. Gilbert also proved a deft Classicist in accounts of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony. In the Beethoven, Michael Brown gave a vividly characterized, rhythmically free-spirited account of the solo line. And in both scores the musicians gave Mr. Gilbert briskly paced, finely balanced readings, illuminated by pinpoint articulation and the kind of vitality you hope these musicians maintain into their real-world careers.

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