Saturday, May 09, 2009

Alan Gilbert has a bright future with the New York Philharmonic

I have been fortunate to attend two weeks of NY Philharmonic concerts led by their incoming music director, Alan Gilbert. I saw him conduct the Philharmonic's concert in Prospect Park last summer, but I was sitting far from the stage and couldn't make out much beyond his white jacket at the podium. These two concerts in May were my chance to see him up close.

On Friday, May 1, I heard them perform works by Dvorak, Martinu and Saint-Saens, including the latter's Violin Concerto with Joshua Bell as the soloist. Bell's performance was phenomenal, and I enjoyed Gilbert's work at the podium as well. He has an expressive and fluid style and he appeared to have a clear command of the orchestra. But these were three works with which I was not familiar, so I was excited to see him conduct this week's program, which included Mahler's Symphony No. 1. I got tickets for this week's concert via a ticket voucher. Normally I wouldn't think of going to concerts two weeks in a row (even I have limits for how much music I can take), but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to hear the orchestra play Mahler, and under the baton of a new conductor. Three years ago I heard the Philharmonic play Mahler's 1st Symphony with Lorin Maazel conducting. While I remember that concert as being an excellent performance, I think I may have been more enthralled by the music than I was the musicians. I know Mahler's 1st extremely well, and even more so having just played it with NYRO in December. Last night was my first chance to hear it performed since that December concert.

New Yorkers need have no fears about Gilbert's ability to lead the Philharmonic. When the orchestra reached the first "explosion" of the brass and percussion in the first movement, I had chills. It was partly for the music, of course. Mahler affects me that way. But it was also from the thrill of seeing an energetic young conductor leading an orchestra that was clearly his own. I broke into a big smile and I hung on every note of the rest of the piece. I especially enjoyed the balance Gilbert achieved among all the parts. Every note in Mahler's music is important, and I thought that Gilbert did an outstanding job of insuring that every instrument came out with its part. When the Philharmonic reached the climax of the last movement I was practically giddy. The audience flew out of their seats at the end in rapturous applause, and Gilbert seemed genuinely humbled by the reception.

Gilbert has hit the jackpot. He's a native New Yorker whose parents were violinists in the Philharmonic (and his mother still is). He's in his early 40s and he's got the job of leading one of the most prominent orchestras in the world. If he's as successful as an ambassador for classical music as he is as a conductor, he could have a career like Leonard Bernstein's if he wanted. As one of my friends said to me after the concert, this guy has a future with the orchestra. I cannot wait to see how Gilbert does next season.

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