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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Concert Review: Finishing What He Started

Alan Gilbert conducts Sibelius and Mendelssohn.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Philharmonic from upstage with Alan Gilbert at the controls.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2015 The New York Philharmonic.
2015 has been a year of transition for Alan Gilbert. The music director of the New York Philharmonic announced back in February that next season would be his last at the helm of the orchestra. However, Tuesday night saw him back on the podium at David Geffen Hall, leading the orchestra in a program of Mendelssohn and Sibelius. The latter is greatest composer in the history of Finland, and 2015 marked his 150th birthday.

The concert opened with The Swan of Tuonela, a mournful tone poem from Finnish mythology. The Philharmonic string section responded with a slow, almost static performance, with the many divided string parts played with precision and shimmering tone. This was part due to Mr. Gilbert's skilled leadership but the contribution of new concertmaster Frank Huang must also be mentioned. The strings supported the song of the swan itself. a stark English horn solo that seemed to float in the air.

The Symphony No. 4 in A minor is held in universal regard among musicians. However, it isnot programmed often at the Philharmonic. (The program notes indicated that the work had not been played by the orchestra since 1987!) Its four movements offer little comfort, being sere and rocky journeys into the composer's tormented psyche following a slew of cancer surgeries. The work presents a challenge for musicians and listeners--modern and tragic without ever resorting to bombast.

Mr. Gilbert and his forces met these challenges with enthusiasm, from the bare opening chords to the ascending tritone that establishes the symphony's key and sets the listener on edge. The treacherous opening movement were navigated with skill, with the orchestra shifting easily through this ambiguous, angst-driven music. The scherzo followed, with a staccato theme in the strings against agile woodwinds.

The slow movement is an almost hypnotic Adagio that captures that gray depression that is endemic to the long nights of the far north. The cellos moved to the forefront here, singing the lament with acceptance of the emotional state but never moving into histrionics. The finale is the lone fast movement but ends in a softly fading funeral march. At its end, the music just stopped. Mr. Gilbert held the silence and the audience, seeming unsure at what it had just heard, finally clapped.

After intermission, listeners seemed happier to be back in the sunny world of Mendelssohn, with that composer's Violin Concerto featuring soloist Joshua Bell. Mr. Bell was just the tonic for those Nordic blues, playing his own fiery cadenza in the first movement and engaging in playful duels with the smaller orchestra. The accompaniment was a little ragged but enthusiastically accepted by the audience, many of whom left before the finale of the evening.

This was more Sibelius: the hearty and evergreen tone poem Finlandia. A hopeful and patriotic work, it nevertheless incorporates a Dies irae into its opening before that gives way to a determined march and a middle section evoking Finnish folk-song. The concert proper was followed by Mr. Gilbert returning to the podium in a Kansas City Royals baseball jersey, explaining that he lost his bet with the Kansas City Symphony's music director. He was then joined by the Kansan mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato for "Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City" from the musical Oklahoma!, with the singer adding some pointed new lyrics celebrating her beloved Royals and their 2015 World Series triumph over the New York Mets.

Again, 2015 was a difficult year.

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