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Friday, March 20, 2015

Concert Review: He's Your Native Son

Alan Gilbert returns to the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Back in black: Alan Gilbert leads the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2015 The New York Philharmonic
New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert has been making headlines this year, not so much for his feats on the podium of Avery Fisher Hall but for the fact that he has announced that he will vacate his position in 2017. Still, the conductor, (who is the first New York-born musician to hold this post and the son of two former members of the orchestra) was all business at Friday's 11am matinée. Looking fit and trim (and conducting in an open-necked shirt without the benefit of his usual baton, he led a complex program featuring classics by Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, along with a recent composition by next year's composer-in-residence, Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Mr. Salonen's 2010 tone poem Nyx is not new to New Yorkers, having been played at Carnegie Hall by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 2012. However, it was new for the Philharmonic audience, and this was the second subscription performance of the 17-minute piece. Happily, Nyx, which was inspired by the mysterious Greek goddess of night and darkness, plays to this orchestra's strengths, with prominent parts for new principal clarinet Anthony McGill and a six-man horn section.

Nyx is dense and ever-shifting, with complex counterpoint for the strings that counterpunches with eruptions of sound from brass and percussion. The principal thematic material was explored by most of the orchestral soloists, with the clarinet taking the lead. The main theme was worked thoroughly in the strings, who played as a dense carpet of sound before reducing themselves to an intimate octet. The idea shifted to the percussion, being played on vibraphone, celesta and a particularly vivid passage for timpani and concert tom. At last, flute and celesta hinted at a breaking dawn in the ethereal final pages.

Last year, the New York Philharmonic created the new post of Artist-in-Association, selecting pianist Inon Barnatan as a concert partner for a three-year period--like a residency but longer. This week marked Mr. Barnatan's debut on a subscription program, playing Ravel's jazzy Concerto in G Major. The first movement immediately revealed this artist's strength, a gift for taut melodic lines and a strong command of the syncopated, American-inspired rhythms that underpin the first movement of this energetic concerto.

Mr. Barnatan showed his poetic side in the second movement, which opens with a long, soulful solo for the piano, exploring the full range of the instrument and indulging in poetic utterance of the utmost beauty and subtlety. The orchestra slowly joined, with solos for the English horn and the flute accompanied by descending keyboard scales of liquid beauty. The fleet-footed final movement had Mr. Barnatan and Mr. Gilbert engaging in a friendly sprint to the finish, playing the pounding rhythms with a sense of elegance and joy, the New York Philharmonic musicians maintaining the helter-skelter pace.

The second half of the concert opened with the most difficult work of the four: Claude Debussy's Jeux. Written as a ballet score, this work had Debussy moving further away from impressionism and creating a brand new musical language, in which brief fragments of melody and suggestions of themes merge and intertwine in new and intriguing ways. A mysterious chord suggests evening, with whispers of percussion (xylophone and tambourine) creating intrigue and dark colors. Mr. Gilbert conducted a taut performance, achieving clarity of texture and a firm sense of forward drive.

That sense of momentum was present in the concert finale: the Suite from Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. This suite, created by the conductor Arthur Rodzhinsky and approved by the composer himself featured a new ending, with Mr. Gilbert substituting his own adaptation of the opera's closing tableau for the more traditional reprise of the opera's rollocking waltz. This popular string of operatic excerpts was delivered in a clipped, Mozartean style that robbed the music of its sweep, sensuality and sex appeal Maybe Mr. Gilbert was eager to unveil his new ending for the public, but this performance proved to be a sterile disappointment.

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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.