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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Concert Review: Alan Gilbert conducts Mahler's Third

New maestro does orchestra's Mahler tradition proud.
Alan Gilbert. Photo © 2009 by Chris Lee.
On Tuesday night, freshly minted New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert led his forces in a sweeping performance of Gustav Mahler's mammoth Third Symphony. It was the orchestra's new leadership meeting its old, as Mahler ranks among the most famous music directors in the long history of the Philharmonic.

Despite its enormous size, the Third is an accessible Mahler symphony, setting aside the nightmares and religious ecstasy for a stately contemplation of nature, from the thunderous, primal birth of life to the heavenly realms and the mind of God. It is a dizzying ride, and Mr. Gilbert led his gigantic orchestra, double chorus, offstage musicians and mezzo-soprano, all without the benefit of a written score.

Judging from his podium performance on Tuesday night, Mr. Gilbert is an inspired technical conductor with an ear for the subtle textures that are often lost in the huge, blaring pages of the first movement. At thirty minutes, this is music for giants. It stops and starts, alternating enormous fanfares with huge slabs of chords and mysterious mutterings in the double basses and bass drums. Mahler's music evokes the mountains bursting forth from the earth, the awakening of the god Pan, and the swinging, brassy arrival of spring as the orchestra transforms not a gigantic marching band.

The remaining five movements of the symphony are on a smaller scale. Mr. Gilbert brought out in the delicate floral textures of the second movement, and the cavorting, parading beasts (complete with a trumpet solo played from the back of Avery Fisher Hall) in the third. Mezzo-soprano Petra Lang lent a mysterious gravity to the sung fourth movement, which fuses the primal rumblings of the first with a setting of Nietzsche. The fifth and sixth movements followed without pause, a choral setting of one of the Wunderhorn songs and a final cosmic movement dominated by the strings and brass..

The hiring of the 42-year old Mr. Gilbert represents a new start . He is a native New Yorker--the first to hold this post. He is the son of two Philharmonic musicians, and his mother, Yoko Takebe, still holds a chair in the violin section. (His father, also a Philharmonic violinist, is retired.) Finally, he is a gifted conductor with a bent for fearlessly programming new music. If Tuesday night's Mahler performance was any indication, the oldest orchestra in North America will be in good hands for many years to come.

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