Shocking as it may seem, although many of the world’s great orchestras have visited Walt Disney Concert Hall in the almost nine years since it officially opened, the New York Philharmonic hasn’t been one of them. That is, until May 9 when they came to town led by their fairly recently appointed music director, Alan Gilbert. (Gilbert and Gustavo Dudamel became directors of their respective orchestras at about the same time in 2009. The scuttle was that the NY Phil was also interested in Dudamel before LA Philharmonic Association President Deborah Borda scooped him up.) There was eager anticipation in the air not only about the NY Phil, but also about Gilbert. Conscious or not, on this evening Angelenos wanted to compare their young music director with ours (who sat in the audience for the first half of the concert).
The program consisted of three works, including the Carnival Overture by Dvorák; the West Coast premiere of the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Finnish composer and NY Phil Composer in Residence Magnus Lindberg, with soloist and frequent Disney Hall guest Yefim Bronfman; and the Symphony No. 4 in F minor by Tchaikovsky.
The concert opened with the Carnival Overture, which has been performed twice in Disney Hall this season (The other time was by Neeme Järvi and the LA Phil). Gilbert’s interpretation was interesting in that he seemed to downplay the horns, trumpets, and trombones in favor of a stronger string presence in this otherwise brassy showpiece. In fact, at times I had to strain to hear the trumpets and trombones, especially in the last section where they are usually more present. Gilbert also played with the tempo, dramatically slowing it down in the Andantino con moto section, with very nice solo playing by the principal flutist Robert Langevin, principal English horn player Philip Myers, and Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, and then speeding it up more than is marked in the score in the coda. Although there were moments of brilliance, the overall effect was less than what one would expect from such a rousing concert overture.
It is difficult to comment on a newly composed piece, especially a piano concerto which, as Lindberg himself has observed “is one of those genres that has such a load of history.” Indeed. One thinks immediately of the piano concertos of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Lindberg’s second concerto certainly matches many of those in its length, orchestration, and demands on the soloist, which are nothing short of Herculean. However, as a traditional listener, I looked, mostly in vain, for some melody or phrase to latch on to. There were certainly tonal motives that were repeated. And the concerto, while structurally modern, does contain recognizable tempos. After all is said and done, one probably has to listen to such a work several times before fully appreciating it, and that is unlikely to happen for most listeners.
What can be said, however, is that whether or not one understood or even liked the concerto, Bronfman’s performance was astounding. The power of Bronfman’s bear-like stature was transferred to his playing, especially in the frequent forte chords in the low registers. It was all the more impressive because Bronfman was sight-reading the piano part, having premiered it with the NY Phil only six days earlier.
Other than Bronfman’s playing, the highlight of the evening was the Tchaikovsky. This, I think, is what the audience expected and what they got: a sensitive but, at the same time, riveting performance of this warhorse symphony.
Tchaikovsky dedicated the symphony A mon meilleur ami (To my best friend), referring, of course, to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, whom he never met. As Tchaikovsky noted, the symphony centers around the first movement, which he described as “the best movement” and the one which introduces “the seed of the whole symphony”: Fate.
Gilbert and his band gave the Disney Hall audience a rendition that would be difficult to match. He crafted the first movement expertly, masterfully contrasting the powerful fateful theme at the beginning with the more delicate sections, which he caressed with loving care, bringing the movement to a rousing conclusion. The other three, shorter movements were also gems each in their own right. Again, Gilbert took some liberties with the tempos, but it worked marvelously. And, unlike in the Dvorák, the brass were bold and loud just as Tchaikovsky intended.
After several curtain calls, Gilbert reappeared and launched into an encore version of the Corsair Overture by Berlioz, played livelier than usual, but intended to capitalize on the audience’s already-giddy mood.
The verdict based on this performance is that Gilbert has taken the oldest orchestra in the country, and one of the only orchestras with many first chairs with international name recognition, and made it sound young and vibrant.
If any of the concertgoers in the audience thought that New Yorkers got the short end of the stick by not landing Dudamel and settling for Gilbert, the performance last night demonstrated that both the LA Phil and the NY Phil hit the jackpot with their respective young conductors.
—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA