Alan Gilbertbiographycalendarnewspressdiscographycontactcontact
At Avery Fisher, the (Possible) Sound of Things to Come
Anthony Tommasini | The New York Times | 2 May 2009

As Alan Gilbert readies himself to take over as music director of the New York Philharmonic in September, he understands that a large segment of its audience is still trying to get a reading on him. On Thursday night he conducted the first performance of an unusual and surprisingly revealing program, his next-to-last guest appearance before becoming the boss. You could almost sense the crowd at Avery Fisher Hall listening with enhanced curiosity to this 42-year-old conductor and New York native, whose mother still plays violin in the orchestra.

There was one surefire piece in the program, Saint-Saƫns's rhapsodic Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, with the brilliant violinist Joshua Bell, always an audience favorite, as soloist. Mr. Bell played with his trademark blend of lushly Romantic fervor, assured virtuosity and clean, articulate musicianship.

But before and after the concerto Mr. Gilbert offered little-known works by Czech composers, each of which the Philharmonic had presented only once before. Dvorak's "Golden Spinning Wheel," a symphonic poem, appeared on a 1932 program, and Bohuslav Martinu's Symphony No. 4 was previously performed in 1986. In addition to introducing new and recent works, one of a music director's responsibilities is to uncover neglected scores. And from the engrossing performances Mr. Gilbert led, it was clear that he believed strongly in both works.

In the realm of grisly fairy tales, "The Golden Spinning Wheel," by the Czech poet Karel Jaromir Erben, holds a place of honor for depravity. Not to dwell on the gory details, but the story tells of a king smitten with a humble young woman, and of the woman's stepmother and stepsister, who kill her, then cut off her hands and feet and gouge out her eyes. The ruthless murderers are punished, the stepdaughter is restored to life, and all ends happily with a royal wedding.

Dvorak emphasizes the story's enchantment and fantasy in this glittering and ethereal 25-minute work. Fairy-tale strangeness is often conveyed through subtle means, as when segments of phrases from a languid melody are repeated with eerie insistence. The score abounds in royal fanfares and in ever-present spinning motifs, six-note, twirling figurations in the violins. Mr. Gilbert conducted a radiant and colorful yet clear-headed and urgent performance.

Martinu, a prolific composer who died in 1959, remains an elusive figure in 20th-century music. He lived through the revolutions of modernism but stayed on the sidelines. He and his wife, shattered by World War II, settled in New York in 1941. The 30-minute Fourth Symphony was written in 1945 as the war was ending in an Allied triumph, and the music reflects Martinu's relief and joy.

The exuberant first movement has an insistent rhythmic swing. The thematic materials may be a little insubstantial. Still, Martinu hooks you with the thickly layered harmonic richness of the music and the entrancing orchestration. A piano lends a clattering, modern edge to the overall sound.

This is followed by a headstrong scherzo, reminiscent of Ravel and Janacek, with a poignant central trio that sounds like updated Dvorak. A pensive Largo and then a vehemently exhilarating finale conclude this curiously overlooked score.

Mr. Gilbert seemed determined to overcome any reservations among listeners to the symphony through his impassioned, committed and commanding performance.

So far, so good.
[back]