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Monday, May 2, 2016

Concert Review: The Bearable Lightness of Being

Alan Gilbert conducts his last program of the 2015-16 season.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The amazing Carter Brey and his favored instrument.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2016 The New York Philharmonic.
For the past year-plus, the podium of the New York Philharmonic has been aswirl as the orchestra prepares to make a transition from the Alan Gilbert era to the leadership of incoming music director Jaap van Zweden. Although he has brought a welcome appreciation for modern music to America's oldest orchestra, Mr. Gilbert hasn't always seen eye to eye with traditional repertory, particularly Germanic music like Schumann and Brahms.

That all changed Saturday night at David Geffen Hall. The conductor led the last of four subscription concerts featuring the Schumann Cello Concerto and the Symphony No. 2 by Brahms, a rosy, evergreen work whose subtleties have eluded this conductor in the past. This was the last concert at David Geffen Hall before the orchestra embarks on a three-concert tour of California this week, and they sounded hungry and eager to get their show on the road.

The two classics were preceded by Aprés by Franck Krawczyk, a new work that is the third and last commission paid for by the Kravis Prize for New Music, awarded two years ago to the late Henri Dutilleux and passed on to three younger composers to carry the torch forward. This was a three-movement work presented in one arc, rich in orchestral detail and filled with skillful but not vulgar references to other works, including Dutilleux's own compositions and the "Turkish March" from the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Working with an expanded percussion section and a very large orchestra, Mr. Gilbert led Aprés off with a mysterious set of otherworldly string chords, as if ectoplasm had come to aural life. Eventually the other sections of the orchestra joined their voices and built the work to a huge initial climax. A second movement followed without pause with a series (pun intended) of diaphanous tone rows. This gave way to the fast finale, with the aforementioned Beethoven homage thundering out from the gran casa.

It helped matters that the soloist in the Schumann was Carter Brey, the principal cellist of the Philharmonic and one of the finest musicians in an orchestra that is currently packed with strong players. Here, the noble tone of his instrument led the orchestra, playing the singing lines with fluidity and grace. This is the most agile of Schumann's big orchestral works and Mr. Gilbert treated it as such, leading the accompaniment with transparency and a necessary lightness of touch.

That same sense of grace carried over to the Brahms in the second half. Mr. Gilbert kept strict control over tempos in the first movement, following the markings in the book but letting the Allegro breathe without going slack. The Adagio began with the orchestra dwelling in the dark territory hinted at by the trombones in the first movement, but the gradual unwinding theme dispelled the sense of melancholy.

The third movement, with its chipper, plucked triplets yielded to a manic Presto trio, the orchestra picking up momentum with the return of the initial thematic idea. This momentum carried into the final Allegro, with the ensemble playing with a genuine sense of joy and unison that has proved evasive for this combination of repertory and conductor in the past. The mutual good feelings were acknowledged by Mr. Gilbert from the podium before he gave the audience a brief tour preview: an encore featuring a rip-roaring reading of the Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 6.

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