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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.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Concert Review: Finding Joy at Last

Alan Gilbert conducts Beethoven and Schoenberg.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Alan Gilbert at the helm of the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee for the New York Philharmonic.
Since its beginnings in 2009, Alan Gilbert's tenure at the helm of the New York Philharmonic has been characterized by bold programming initiatives and a strength in the music of the 20th century. However, there have been mixed results with works of the core repertory of the 19th century, particularly in the symphonies of Beethoven. On Friday night, with his tenure nearing its end, Mr. Gilbert showed mastery of that most knotty of Beethoven symphonies: the No. 9 in D minor.

The work was coupled with A Survivor from Warsaw, Arnold Schoenberg's harrowing ten-minute work for large orchestral forces, chorus and speaker. Schoenberg, an Austrian Jew who fled to California, uses his signature twelve-tone technique to couch a harrowing account of one of the few Jews who survived the Warsaw Ghetto. This was a walled-off square mile, packed with 400,000 displaced Jews, most of whom were starved, murdered in the camps, or killed in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. 11,500 Jews survived

The work juxtaposes an English text (the narration of the unnamed survivor) German to represent the shouts and commands of Nazi officers, and in its closing pages, the Jewish prayer "Shema Yisroel," sung by a men's chorus. The speaker was Tony-winning actor Gabriel Ebert, who delivered the English and German text through clipped and harrowing tones, as the orchestra thundered, roared and clattered behid him. The men's chorus entered, tramping into the orchestra seating of a darkened Avery Fisher Hall and unleashing the prayer on the unsuspecting audience. It was a powerful effect.

At the end of the Schoenberg, the lights went out, dousing the house in darkness. Following the applause, Mr. Gilbert took the podium to start the Beethoven Ninth. The first movement was crisp and precise, with occasional rubato stretches in the tempo that brought accent and enohasis to certain phrases. Most important here was the synchornicity between Mr. Gulbert and his players: they gave him every accent and note that he asked for, and the results were simply thrilling.

That trend continued in the Scherzo, announced by a descending three-chord figure answered by bangs on the timpani. The string players bit cleanly into the complex textures, creating a feeling of perpetual motion in the outer sections before the woodwinds took over and played the central trio. Of note here, the precision of flute, oboe and clarinet, answered by the section of cellos in a song of their own.

That idea of call-and-response is central to each movement of this sprawling symphony. It is present too in the slow movement, an Adagio that sounds like it could be from a much earlier Beethoven work before it goes in its own unique direction. The overall effect here was one of serenity with Mr. Gilbert guiding the players toward the revelations that were to come. Each bar here holds the promise of a better world, upping the stakes for the struggle of the massive final movement.

This began in chaos, with the keys of D minor and B flat major juxtaposed to create an unforgiving and oppressive wall of sound. This yielded to the basses. They argued (persuasively) for the unleashing of the Ode to Joy theme, which was carried through the rest of the orchestra. Chaos returned and then bass Eric Owens stood up, his powerful voice singing the recitative melody. He was joined by three other soloists and the massed forces of the Westminster Symphonic Choir as Beethoven fused chorus and symphony together.

It is very easy for a conductor to get lost in this complex last movement. There are pitfalls: the tricky Turkish march, the first fugue that follows and the numerous pauses for rest which any audience can ruin with early applause. As the chorus intoned "Seid umschlugnen, millionen!" it was clear that conductor and orchestra are finally comfortable together playing this music. Mr. Gilbert moved through whiplash tempo shifts and different orchestral and vocal forces with a new mastery over this material. It is too bad that Mr. Gilbert and the Philharmonic waited so long to finally get this work right.

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