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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Concert Review: Two Sides of the Baton

Alan Gilbert conducts Bartòk, Ligeti and Beethoven.

Since taking the helm of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert has always presented listeners (professional or otherwise) with a frustrating paradox. For the conductor, who is in the early weeks of his final season as music director seems to be two very different conductors. He is composed and confident in modern music, exposing his audience to composers lie Magnus Lindberg and Györgi Ligeti. However, in more traditional, "classical" repertory he has faltered with slow tempos and muddled interpretations, specifically in the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms.

These two sides of Mr. Gilbert were on display on Wednesday night, as the conductor led a one-off concert featuring Béla Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Ligeti's Music from the Macabre and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, a work that is meat and drink for any maestro. As one of the most popular symphonies in the repertory, its weight can (if improperly handled) sink an orchestral concert. 

Bartòk’s piece eschews symphonic form for the composer’s use of baroque ideas and his own, unconventional compositional style . The orchestral seating features two opposed string orchestras, doing antiphonal battle for the souls of the two keyboardists and percussion ensemble iat center stage. The first movement is a delicate fugue, that kept shifting tempos as Bartók erected a vast polyphonic structure. The fast second movement moved the piano to the forefront, with Eric Huebner playing a lengthy, concerto-like cadenza although this work is in no way a concerto. 

The third movement is ethereal, evoking the mysteries of night-time with whispered conversations between the xylophone and strings. In a lengthy section built around the sequence of Fibonacci numbers, timpanist Kyle Zerna playing difficult glissando passages on his instruments. Bartók's interest in folk music dominated the final movement, with Mr. Gilbert providing the work with firm and enthusiastic leadership.

One of Mr. Gilbert's greatest successes in his first year was a fully staged production of Ligeti's surreal opera Le grand Macabre. Here, the anarchic energy and absurdity of that work manifested in Mysteries of the Macabre, a transcription of three of that work's arias written for the Chief of the Gepopo, the Secret Political Police. These arias are for high coloratura soprano, but on an occasion where the work was scheduled but no soprano was available, a solo trumpet proved to be an effacacious substitute. 

Principal trumpet Christopher Martin entered running from the wings and it was game on, as he and Mr. Gilbert led the gleeful charge down the dark highways of Ligeti's imagination. Percussionist Daniel Druckman crumpled handfuls of paper. Christopher Lamb blew a police whistle. The strings muttered and shouted. Alan Gilbert turned and barked phrases at the audience. The trumpet soared high above this cheerful insanity in a nine minute piece that condensed and captured the magic of this opera for those who missed it the first time 'round.

The concert ended with Beethoven's Fifth, rendered here in crisp, bold colors. Despite a shaky first phrase, the orchestra moved ahead into the Allegro con brio, playing Beethoven's extensive permutations of his four-note motif with poise and purpose. The central movements were perfectly paced, with the groaning weight of the cellos answered by determined phrases from the brass. The bracing finale, with its long exposition and massive recapitulation has the genuine feeling of triumph over considerable adversity. From Mr. Gilbert and his orchestra, listeners should expect nothing less. 

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