Saturday evening's concert opened with a solo performance of Debussy's Pagodes, a “slide show” for piano (as Ax and music director Alan Gilbert explained before the concert). Gilbert said that they decided earlier in the week to perform the Debussy work back-to-back with Olivier Messiaen's Couleurs de la cité céleste, as the two pieces were similar in style and theme. The Debussy was a short but pleasant work, and Ax's work was delightful and charming. Gilbert, who had been standing at the podium through Ax's performance, then cued the small ensemble (horns, trumpets, trombones, winds, and percussion) for the Messiaen piece. I'm not a fan of Messiaen's music. The only thing I could think during the performance (which was excellent, by the way) was that his music sounds like what happens when you try to make sense of a two-year-old banging on a piano. His music doesn't sound like music to me. It's barely controlled random notes. And I say this having performed Messiaen with NYRO a few years ago. I didn't understand it then either.
After intermission, I returned to the hall to a stage filled with chairs and percussion for Mahler's Symphony No. 5. I heard Gustavo Dudamel lead the Philharmonic in this work a little over two years ago, and I think Saturday night's performance with Alan Gilbert was ever so slightly better. Gilbert was in full control at the podium, using every inch of space he had to hold the massive ensemble together. Each movement had moments that gave me chills and I hung on nearly every note. Phil Smith on trumpet and Phil Myers on horn were both magnificent, and each received well-deserved cheers at the end of the piece. I've been to every New York Philharmonic Mahler concert this year, and I think this one was my favorite. I'm going to be thinking about this performance for a long time, or at least until they open next season with Mahler's Symphony No. 2, my all-time favorite.