A Velvet Revolution

Photo: Nigel Parry/CPI

After a few weeks as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert answered the question of what his tenure would bring—with Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question. It was a sly and lovely way of hinting that the relationship between an orchestra and its resident maestro coalesces over years, but that in the meantime, uncertainty has a beauty of its own. In Ives’s seven-minute piece, a distant trumpet gropes for a tune as a klatch of wind instruments chatters in confusion. Gelid, impassive strings fan out across a vast G-major chord that extends from a double-bass rumble to a soft whistle in the violins. At the end, Gilbert snuffed out that quiet tundralike expanse of sound. Immediately, without giving the audience a chance to breathe, much less applaud, the pianist Emanuel Ax struck G major again, only now it was the opening flourish of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. After the cosmic conundrum of the Ives, the chord sounded shockingly warm and dense and intimate.

The Philharmonic itself is experiencing a moment of metamorphosis and continuity. It retains its vaunted flexibility and its polished-copper tone. The horns can still produce a sonic halo. When the score demands rawness and rage, the musicians all seem able to draw on deep reservoirs of both. And yet in the first month of the Gilbert era, the orchestra has shyly, tentatively, begun to try on a new identity. Already, it has become a little less of a drafty temple and more of a campus coffee house, inviting its audiences to hear and think about music in an atmosphere of animated informality.

When the potentially frightening name of Arnold Schoenberg appeared on a program, Gilbert grabbed a microphone and spoke for about ten minutes, using the orchestra as a deluxe audio-visual aid. Talking conductors often wind up delivering shticks or sermons; he led a light, quick tour through the dense melodic foliage and nitrogen-rich harmonies in Schoenberg’s early tone poem Pelleas und Melisande. I have no idea whether it helped listeners grasp the score, but I suspect it won many over to Gilbert. It helped that he programmed the piece for the best of reasons—because he loves it, and it is rarely performed—and conducted it with panoramic ardor.

Rewind to opening night, when the new era began with a shot: the crack of a woodblock, courtesy of the orchestra’s new composer-in-residence, Magnus Lindberg. Eager to signal that the music of today will have a haven in his Philharmonic, Gilbert introduced himself with the world premiere of a work he had commissioned, Lindberg’s ten-minute EXPO. This mechanical frenzy of beating pistons and whirling gears seems to have four settings: loud, soft, very fast, and superslow. High-speed string sections go slamming into thick wind adagios, as if to highlight the contrast between the Philharmonic then and the Philharmonic now. But too much contrast has a way of undermining its own drama, and EXPO hurtled towards tiresomeness.

The rest of the televised concert was a success, if a muted one. The dependable gala headliner Renée Fleming sang Olivier Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi, a set of love songs garlanded with orchestral filigree. Fleming’s voice had just the right pearlescent luster for the piece’s conversational recitatives and sinuous loop-de-loops. But this is ecstatic music, full of saturated hues and great gonging chords, and it suffered from a politely restrained performance and Avery Fisher Hall’s unmerciful acoustics.

If the first half established Gilbert’s modernist inclinations, the second was meant to reassure skittish subscribers. It’s ironic that Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, a work of hallucinatory Dionysian genius, should have become such a reliable tonic. Cacophonous fanfares accompany the hero to the scaffold in a narcotic dream. Magical forest creatures slink and scuttle out of their lairs at night. Gilbert traversed this psycho-landscape as if it were the product of a rational mind, which of course it is. He let the weirdness speak for itself, without cranking it up into horror-movie territory. The result was 45 minutes of startlingly lucid drama.

It’s said, usually in scorn, that orchestras are like museums. Indeed they are, and the Philharmonic should aspire to be like the Met: exhaustive, dynamic, and scholarly, but not above a little judicious populism. In his opening weeks, Gilbert has amply demonstrated his curatorial skills. In his first subscription concerts, he conducted Mahler’s Third Symphony and Ives’s Second, each of which could be the blowout event of a less ambitious season. There was something slightly defensive about opening with such an Alpine lineup. Gilbert seemed to be challenging anyone who’d call him a lightweight. But lack of seriousness is hardly his problem; in his eagerness to thrust the Philharmonic back into the middle of New York’s cultural life, he may forget that people also go to concerts to have fun.

Many good conductors let the self-regard that fuels their profession get in the way, turning every conversation into a soliloquy. I don’t doubt that Gilbert has a well-furnished ego, but he has mastered it, rather than the other way around. He listens, considers, and collaborates. When, in the second movement of Brahms’s Violin Concerto, the oboe emerged out of a ravishing haze of winds, the moment felt like an offering to the friend by his side, the violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann.

For now, Gilbert is being defined by what he is not: elderly, European, white, old-fashioned, radical, boring, or bizarrely young. He isn’t a rock star, a high priest, or a specialist. Adrenaline is not the principal ingredient in his interpretations. But as he, the orchestra, and the audience get to know one another, I think he’ll emerge as a genuine intellectual, a musician of impeccable technique, profound intuitions, and a fortifying mix of curiosity and conviction. Now, if he can just balance those qualities with the demands of institutional politics and highbrow showbiz, then all he has left to do is gather the 100 personalities onstage into a supple, polymorphous whole.

A Velvet Revolution