Institutions age and get respectable too. The New York Philharmonic is 167 years old and has earned a great deal of honest respect through all those years, and the tradition to which it’s dedicated has been accumulating respect for even longer. Respect can be fleeting, however, and needs more than just reputation to develop and endure. The tradition of Western classical music endures because it is alive and expanding, with new works and ideas building on the shoulders of the giants who have come before. Classical music institutions give respect by acknowledging that tradition, and earn respect by doing so. For decades in the middle of the 20th century, the Philharmonic earned, and deserved, great respect, becoming not only one of the finest orchestras in the world but, by maintaining the old and new classical traditions under an amazing succession of music directors (including Gustav Mahler, Willem Mengelberg, Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Leopold Stokoswki, Dimitri Mitropolous, Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez), becoming one of the most important.
The previous twenty years have been ones where, other than age, there was little the Philharmonic was doing to earn respect. Orchestral playing fell off from the top ranks under Zubin Mehta, and while that was restored under Kurt Masur and refined under Lorin Maazel, the music the Philharmonic presented was enough to earn merely the respect of age. A seemingly endless parade of all the expected old classics offered neither surprise nor any sense that the institution recognized that the tradition which it claimed to represent was passing it by. The Board chose music directors who would be certain not to wake up the subscribers, and the orchestra was facing the possibility of its audience literally dying off, while it sunk into cultural irrelevancy. For anyone who cared about the culture legacy of the great New Yorker Leonard Bernstein, it was both sad and infuriating.
So the appointment of Alan Gilbert as the new music director has been both overdue and welcome. He has earned enormous goodwill simply by taking the stage, and he is also truly earning respect again for the Philharmonic, rapidly and dramatically. Truly, the task is not daunting, it merely requires recognition of what the tradition of classical music is. The audiences and, I believe, the orchestra have been yearning for it. Gilbert is not going to remake the Philharmonic, he’s going to restore it to the place it once deservedly held, that of an great and important orchestra.
Much has been made of the televised inaugural concert, and it was solid if not spectacular. What was spectacular was the program; a brand new work from Magnus Lindberg, 20th century music from Messiaen and the Symphonie Fantastique, an accepted classic but off the well-beaten Germanic path. Gilbert didn’t offer any extraordinary new ideas, but rather led well-played, thought-through performances of worthwhile music. Respect, in other words, and invaluable.
It is this simple acceptance of the constantly developing tradition of classical music which makes all the difference. This season’s concerts are filled with familiar material; Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Schubert, music which belongs on the program of any serious orchestra. It also features a highly anticipated Stravinsky festival led by Valery Gergiev and a concert performance of Ligeti’s “Le Grande Macabre,” two of the most important and exciting musical events for the season in New York. It is this mix of the older, the old, the recent and the new which matters and which Gilbert is making possible.
The final proof, though, is in the playing, and the qualities which make Gilbert important to the Philharmonic, and thus which make the orchestra matter, were on display in a recent concert of music from Beethoven, Bernstein and Falla. That list of names may seem odd, but they are all part of the same tradition, a fact which requires no further argument. It was a program for Gilbert, the musician, to offer the familiar in the context of this new flavor, the idea that at times the unexpected will be coming. His Beethoven, the great “Egmont” overture and the “Piano Concerto No. 3,” with Emanuel Ax, is excellent. “Egmont” was exciting and taut, kept under controlled tension until the the proper moments of power where it threatened to burst the seams, and the brought to the simple, satisfying beauty of its cadence with the dignity and poise that are essential to Beethoven. The concerto was rhythmically solid, passionate and lucid, the orchestra an intuitive partner for Ax’s precise, transparent playing and lyrical touch. Again, the balance of power, precision and dignity among conductor, soloist and musicians was superb. The music was vital, in the moment, and important for all the players and so important for the audience.
After the icy, razor sharp precision of Maazel’s sound, it’s amazing to hear how vastly and quickly Gilbert has transformed the orchestra. His sound is warm, enveloping and very big, too big at times for Avery Fisher Hall. Since I first saw the conductor nine years ago, he has stoked a powerful fire, and he conveys it through sound. He seems set on a war against the tight, flat acoustic of the hall and it doesn’t seem possible for him to win, though I do wish him well. It does add an exciting edge to the music making. His choice to perform the “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story” was extremely welcome. This is simply great music, not only a great pleasure to hear but also great American music, a cosmopolitan, gay, New York Jew writing the sounds of urban Hispanics, there’s not much that’s more patriotic. Since this is Bernstein’s music, it’s the Philharmonic’s as well, it’s part of their tradition. Not every classical musician grows up with these sounds, and they are not quite intuitive yet for Gilbert; phrases which should be sharp were slightly mushy, and the rhythmic swagger born of confidence in the idiom was missing, but the drive and rousing, invigorating sincerity were fully there. The final piece, a suite from Falla’s “Three-Cornered Hat” ballet, was full of color, vitality and a sense of pleasure in the music-making. With the promise of an expanded tradition, not every program need break new ground, but in that context a program which features excellent music-making of excellent pieces of music is a pleasure in itself and an exciting appetizer to the possibilities of this great tradition. Respect.