New World’s Symphony

Have you heard about Jay Nordlinger? He may have been one of the several dozen people I saw stream out of Avery Fisher hall prior to the final piece on a recent New York Philharmonic program. The concert was an imaginatively constructed, well thought-out, exceptionally well-played program. Why would anyone leave?

They left because Alan Gilbert had programmed a piece of music that was just under 100 years old. Apparently, a certain segment of the New York Philharmonic’s audience find that music of too recent a vintage, not “Classical” enough. Somehow, I don’t think those same people will be warming to Eliot Carter within the next twenty years or so. This fresh, daring, radical, unfamiliar and unwelcome music that these patrons found frightening was Alban Berg’s Thee Pieces for Orchestra Op. 6. Really, what’s so frightening?

Alan Gilbert was brought on board for several reasons, and the obvious and unspoken one was to literally transfuse new blood into the corpus of the Philharmonic. It wasn’t that the existing blood was clotted, but that it had been replaced by formaldehyde. It’s a common problem for arts organizations that exist in a particular and fairly high socio-economic niche in the United States, and if this was any part-time, regional orchestra around the country with patrons eager to one day hear the Chopin Symphonies (inside joke) it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But the New York Philharmonic has the advantage of existing in New York City, the capital of the world, and residing in Lincoln Center, a grand palace to the performing arts. A concert is a place where living beings use muscle, nerve and breath to revivify a set of instructions, for that is what a musical score is. The work may be ancient, but it comes alive in performance, and the tradition to which orchestral works belong is alive and constantly growing. New Yorkers can experience this regularly a dozen blocks away at Carnegie Hall, where the world’s greatest orchestras visit with programs designed to show off their ability, taste and imagination.

For twenty years, though, Avery Fisher hall was something of a mausoleum. Not only was there little acknowledgement that classical music is a living tradition, there was an apparent desire to maintain a hold on a certain audience, the kind that from a combination of age and lack of interest sleeps through the concerts. Symphony orchestras constantly face demographic problems, and if one of those is the aging of the audience than logically the worst solution is to hold onto it for dear life, for when it passes on there is no one to sit in the empty chairs. As much as the Jay Nordlingers of the world would prefer classical music to be a precious commodity, held only by the select few who have the money and the concomitant social status to which it is an embellishment, this is a body of great, powerful and exciting music made by real people with real ideas. Classical concerts are not about the people who wear tuxedoes, they are about the music, and if Alan Gilbert is scaring away a certain kind of patron then that is good for the health of the orchestra.

The Philharmonic’s season began with a sense of short-term anticipation and longer term, gentle confidence. The general idea was that Gilbert would slowly move the programs into territory that included the last hundred years of music, and the occasional contemporary work. There was the appointment of Magnus Lindberg and the creation of the “CONTACT!” new music festival, which made explicit the importance of living music, but the impression was that this was like steering an ocean liner, and a gradual, steady influence now would mean a very different destination several years into the journey. What’s actually been happening has been both subtler and far more ambitious, all done with a far greater pace yet without any sense of haste, and it’s exciting right now and for what it promises in the future. The thing that Gilbert has been doing is making arguments.

A concert program is an implicit argument, one that says these are good works that deserve hearings. The standard concert format is an overture or some other short piece, a concerto featuring a guest soloist and then, after intermission, a symphony. The choices are sometimes put together in way that may demonstrate some relationship to each other, at least one that exists for the conductor. Some of the more ambitious music directors hint at a sense of progression/tradition in time. A very few say something explicit about what they mean to achieve, and this Gilbert is doing, the recent concert being a great example. In the program booklet, facing the list of works, was a short piece titled “Alan Gilbert on This Program.” Describing the concert, Haydn’s Symphony No. 49 La passione, John Adams’ The Wound-Dresser, a setting of Walt Whitman for baritone (Thomas Hampson) and orchestra, the Schubert Unfinished Symphony and Berg’s aforementioned Op. 6, Gilbert wrote that he hopes the music tells a story about itself, where the pieces came from and where the music is going, as well as revealing a truly serious nature, thematically and existentially. He wrote “I’ve decided to close the program with the Berg because when you get to this cataclysmic end – after this amazing and compelling and terrifying march that is the third piece – there’s really nothing else to say.”

This is provocative in the best sense; it’s about hearing the music and thinking about it, not sleeping through the concert. It’s about giving the audience the experience of the performance and something for them to contemplate on the way home, the next day and the next week. The people who left prefer their culture served to them in a consistently anodyne way, like fast-food, but the point of playing this music is to offer the opposite entirely; craft, questions, passions. What they missed was a tremendous performance of the Berg, completely palatable for anyone who has heard Mahler or Strauss. Fundamentally Gilbert is an excellent conductor, and it was amazing to hear so much transparent detail in the playing of this massive ensemble, even in the loudest sections. His control of the orchestral sound is complete already and his attention to phrasing in every piece puts him on the top level of musicians. The Philharmonic has a great talent here, already musically accomplished and with a head and heart committed to saying things, and saying something in the concert hall is making the orchestra relevant and vital.

What he said made sense. Haydn’s symphony, with it’s long, slow opening movement, is one of his most beautiful and richly passionate works. Gilbert is an old-fashioned conductor in that he indulges little in the styles of period performance practice which seeks to convey an archaic sense of the music. He has the big, mid-century sound in the Classical era pieces, and it works. The phrasing in the Adagio was lovely, the fast second movement was a nice combination of legato playing and strict rhythms, the Menuet – Trio had the dignity that seems a special quality of this conductor and the finale was fleet-footed and powerful.

The Wound-Dresser was well played, and I am a fan of Adams, but I do not warm to this piece. It sits ambivalently in the composer’s career, at the crossroads between Minimalist process and Neo-Romantic resolution. Hampson, a great artist, sang with expressive restraint in a way that would suit Whitman in recitation, but the setting of words to music itself does not really convey the combination of tenderness and devastation that the poet accomplishes. Adams string lines are long but they seem to only formally move beyond Minimalism; they are not yet Romantic.

Schubert has the great, long, Romantic line in his B minor symphony, the two parts left to us. The gracefulness of the playing was exceptional; it cannot be emphasized enough how beautifully Gilbert shapes phrases, how he weights them carefully and confidently and brings them all the way from beginning to end. This makes the sound of the orchestra and their playing intensely lyrical and is beginning already to set them apart from other ensembles. The argument in the notes was clear in the playing, which had a consistent expression of tragedy and really prepared the ears for Berg. Along with the power and clarity of the performance, the conductor emphasized the sheer beauty of Berg’s sound, and it was immediately thrilling to the ear, and thrilling as well to hear the ambition.

The Philharmonic as an organization is demonstrating further ambitions, and they are all equally surprising and exciting. Like a lot of classical music organizations, they are offering lessons in imaginative marketing, business analysis and economic thinking that record companies trapped inside obsolete conventional wisdom might want to think about studying. On the small yet still important scale there is the charm of Gilbert’s recent interview at the digital music subscription site, eMusic, which may bring in new listeners. At eMusic and other sites, people can download a recent New York Philharmonic Mahler cycle, made interesting since it’s a case of the organization realizing they had one in their archives (the orchestra records all their concerts as a matter of course) under Loren Maazel, and so packaged and distributed at what must be minor cost and high margins. I’ve already noted how impressive the sound quality is, while musically it’s a mixed success. The orchestra plays phenomenally well, and for long stretches the music is deeply involving. But Maazel is known for his bizarre interpretive touches, and generally there is some moment where it seems the wrong thing is being emphasized the wrong way that jars me from my reveries. Still, his fans will love it, and there are notable recordings, with the Sixth being very fine and the Eight tremendous all the way through.

Most ambitious and imaginative of all is the creation of “Alan Gilbert: The Inaugural Season iTunes Pass.” For $150, you get a download of over 50 concerts on the Philharmonic’s season for 2009/10, available soon after each series has concluded its run. These are the orchestra’s in-house recordings, and they have value. The recording/performance costs have already been paid, so it’s excellent economics, essentially like selling extra tickets even though no seats are left. It’s also great music and great playing. For listeners who enjoy the music, the orchestra and what’s going on at Avery Fisher, it’s a truly inexpensive way to hear things happening in-the-moment, with a conductor who has already brought New York Philharmonic back to the present.

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