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Saturday, October 5, 2013

Concert Review: Earning His Beethoven Badge

Alan Gilbert conducts the Ninth Symphony.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Alan Gilbert. Photo by Chris Lee © 2013 The New York Philharmonic
Leading a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (that's the one with chorus, soloists and the Ode to Joy) is a mark of achievement for any conductor. On Friday night Alan Gilbert led the New York Philharmonic in his second performance of that famous work this week. This is Mr. Gilbert's first series of Beethoven Ninths since becoming Music Director five years ago.

The Ninth was paired with Frieze, a new piece by Mark Anthony Turnage. Loosely inspired by Beethoven's own symphonies (and the famous Beethoven Frieze by Viennese artist Gustav Klimt) Frieze was co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and London's Royal Philharmonic Society to celebrate the bicentennial of the latter organization. Mr. Gilbert took the podium with microphone in hand to explain this to the audience, addressing the packed house much as he would a class at Juilliard.

Although Mr. Turnage is a composer of talent and innovation, there was something "safe" and by-the-book about Frieze. This work was no more than its stated purpose: four amenable modern movements meant to serve as an opening act for the larger Beethoven piece. Inspired moments in Frieze included the pounding dance movement, where Jazzy cross-rhythms and Bernstein-inspired intervals permeated the score. The finale, a whirling Rondo culminating a chaotic blaze of orchestral color.

On to the main event. Mr. Gilbert's Beethoven is something of a throwback, a big-shouldered, Romantic approach to this symphony. The conductor ignored the composer's metronome markings and played the work with a free, flexible rhythm, allowing big sections of the work to breathe and gather before hammering down the chords of timpani and brass that anchor the first movement. Some of the brass entries sounded a little muddled last night, although strong playing from the strings did much to compensate.

The second movement was better, with Markus Rhoten's timpani leading off a crisp, whirling dance that built into a proper fortissimo frenzy of rhythm and angst. The trio section was lovely, with inspired playing from oboist Liang Wang, bassoonist Judith LeClair and principal horn Philip Myers, a little island of peace in the middle of all the bluster. The repeat of the dance was even more impressive, tautly played and releasing some of the pent-up energy from earlier in the movement.

Mr. Gilbert's approach to the Ninth began to pay real dividends in the slow movement, which he constructed as a very slow acceleration. Each repetition of the main thematic idea was slightly faster, gaining power like a rushing river as it widens and the current speeds up. The glowing texture of strings and winds culminated in a bright, sternly delivered call from the brass, a repetition of the three-note rhythm present in the first two movements.

A long pause followed, as Mr. Gilbert rolled his shoulders and gathered himself for the final, marathon movement. The first tutti was hurried and chaotic, the players blurring each other as brass and winds competed in two different keys. The answering recitative was brisk, with the conductor choosing momentum over drama in the lead-up to the first sounding of the Ode to Joy. Once that cadence was reached, the great theme proceeded in a serene, stately manner, being tossed from low strings to woodwinds to brass and timpani, the same progression that Beethoven uses through all four movements.

The entry of bass-baritone Shenyang with a bellowed "O Freude!" brought the work to the next level, as Mr. Gilbert used his skills as a conductor of choral and operatic music to bring the finale to vivid life. Tempos here drove relentlessly forward, as singers (soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, mezzo Kelley O'Connor and tenor Russell Thomas) orchestra and the Manhattan School of Music's Symphonic Chorus performed each orchestral variation, working steadily through the text. Following the Turkish March, Mr. Gilbert and his forces met each challenge: a fugue, giant recapitulation and the complex double fugue that serves as the symphony's climax. At last, the march rhythm returned at a trot, driving the coda into its triumphant final bars.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.