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Friday, October 7, 2011

Concert Review: Trading His Baton for a Bow

Alan Gilbert plays Bach, then leads Berg and Brahms.
Delicious! Soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann takes a bite of his 1711 Stradivarius.
Photo © 2010 Sony Classical/Frank Peter Zimmermann.
Friday's matinee concert at Avery Fisher Hall opened with the Bach Concerto for Two Violins, featuring Philharmonic 2011 Artist-in-Residence, joined by a talented young violinist...named Alan Gilbert. This may have been the boldest move of the Philharmonic music director's three-year tenure--picking up the violin and joining artist-in-residence Frank Peter Zimmermann for  Johann Sebastian Bach's Concerto for Two Violins.

I can't remember the last time this happened at the Philharmonic. (There is some precedent, as the orchestra was founded in 1842 by violinist Uli Corelli Hill.) History aside, Mr. Gilbert acquitted himself well, twining with Mr. Zimmermann in the eloquent opening. The long slow movement displayed the musical mind of the man who wields the baton with gorgeous figures from the twinned violins.
Alban Berg's moving Violin Concerto followed, with Mr. Gilbert resuming his traditional role on the podium. This is one of Berg's most mature, accessible works, and the last piece he completed before his untimely death. It is written in his 12-tone style but with such artistry that the serial technique never gets in the way of the listener's enjoyment.

Mr. Zimmermann led the choir of mourning from his violin. The Concerto was written following the death of Manon Gropius, the 18-year old daughter of Berg's friend Alma Mahler-Werfel, widow of the composer Gustav Mahler. He played the complex, dissonant figures with an almost operatic eloquence, soaring against the sometimes hushed, sometimes thnderous backdrop of the orchestration.

Berg ends the second and final movement of this concerto with a set of variations on a Bach chorale. (Happily, this fact tied together the two concertos on the program.) As he played the variations,  Mr. Zimmermann took an unusual step backwards on the stage, moving amongst the first violins and violas and playing as if he was part of their section. It was an unusual gesture for a soloist, and one that speaks of the bond between this violinist and the orchestra as he begins his year-long residency.

The concert ended with Brahms' Third Symphony, an heroic work that overcomes its opening storm and stress with rigorous classical thought in the mold of Beethoven. There is some evidence that Brahms' dense orchestral style influenced Berg's teacher Arnold Schoenberg, so a faint connection could be drawn between this work and the Violin Concerto.

This is Mr. Gilbert's favorite of the four Brahms symphonies, and he treated it royally. The opening had force. The slow movement flowed forth in rich tones but did not meander. And the very last pages, a hushed, but resolute chorale that anticipates the Bach-like ending of the Berg concerto by some 53 years, were played with magical, organ-like tone from the Philharmonic's wind and horn sections.

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