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Friday, April 29, 2011

Concert Review: The Cost of Modernism

Debussy, Messiaen and Mahler at the New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert takes aim.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2011 The New York Philharmonic
Friday's afternoon performance at the New York Philharmonic reunited the orchestra with pianist Emanuel Ax for a program exploring the links between three seminal composers of the 20th century: Claude Debussy, Olivier Messiaen and Gustav Mahler. The concert featured pianist Emanuel Ax. On the night before, Mr. Ax celebrated his 100th concert appearance with the New York Philharmonic.

"Pagodas", the first of Estampes, Debussy's "picture postcards" for piano, opened the concert. Mr. Ax played with flair, drawing out the delicate textures and smoky, Oriental flavor in this music. He then dived into the difficult Couleurs de la cité céleste  "Colors of the Celestial City", Olivier Messiaen's composition for piano, brass, winds and percussion.

Messiaen's music is generally not to the taste of the Philharmonic's über-conservative Friday afternoon audience. (One had the sense that these music-lovers would stream for the exit had there been a break in the program.) Mr. Gilbert led a vigorous performance with rich textures of heavy brass, gongs, and virtuoso clarinet playing. Through the contrasting sections of this piece, (which is meant to evoke a heavenly cityscape) Mr. Gilbert produced Messiaen's unusual clusters of sound: combining brass chords, bird-song and layers of tuned percussion with a deft flick of his baton.

Before the performance, Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Ax addressed their audience explaining the valid musical connection between Debussy and Messiaen, along with brief examples of the latter's work. This mystic French composer is one of the most important musical voices of the 20th century, having influenced everyone from Pierre Boulez to the film music of John Williams. But despite Mr. Gilbert's diplomatic efforts, his subscribers were having none of it.

They were far happier with the second half of the program, the thunderous (and more importantly, familiar) Fifth Symphony by Gustav Mahler. The solo trumpet kicked off the opening funeral dirge, answered by eructations of sound from the fully assembled Philharmonic and low ominous growls from tuba player Alan Baer. Then, Mr. Gilbert let his small army of musicians slide into the three-four lockstep, playing the demented death-waltz that makes up the second subject of the movement.

The second movement was played with thrust and power, the sound of a lumbering giant at play. The third is a Mahler scherzo, which means that it contains some of this composer's boldest, edgiest music. Its opening three-note drop serves a trapdoor, plunging the listener into a deep exploration of the dark corners of the psyche. Its soaring horn solo, played here by the great Philip Myers, was a highlight of the entire performance.

Those in the audience who spent the intermission complaining about Messiaen were probably only there to hear the fourth movement of the Mahler Fifth: the famous Adagietto. Mr. Gilbert conducted Mahler's "greatest hit" with grace and charm. He then proceeded to make the finale fly like a well-swung wrecking ball. What emerged from the rubble was a triumph: not just for the composer conquering his demons but for Mr. Gilbert conquering his audience. After all, a hundred years ago, concert-goers sneered at Mahler, too.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats