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Gilbert Finds Surprises in Familiar Orchestra Fare
Steve Smith | The New York Times | 2 November 2009

By all rights the concert the New York Philharmonic presented at Avery Fisher Hall on Friday night could have been a drowsy walk-through. After all it was not supposed to happen. The Philharmonic intended to spend the end of October in Havana, where it had been invited to perform. When that trip was canceled, after the State Department refused permission for moneyed patrons to tag along, the orchestra filled the gap in its schedule with concerts at home.

Granted, preparing the repertory for this program, a mix of familiar works by Beethoven, Bernstein and Manuel de Falla, probably required little exertion. But the concert indicated that a growing bond between Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic players continues to yield substantial dividends.

The sharp definition and assertive thrust Mr. Gilbert brought to Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture were entirely convincing, especially when combined with the warmly blended sound he has coaxed out of the reconfigured orchestra. Similarly, each entrance, gesture and nuance in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 bolstered the work's intrinsic drama.

The pianist Emanuel Ax played with his customary poise and effervescence, shaping unaccompanied lines with a flexibility that offered a dramatic contrast to the surging drive elsewhere. A coughing jag among audience members after the first movement provoked joking gestures of impatience from Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Ax. When playing resumed, the central Largo had a rapt luminescence; the Rondo, a frolicsome energy.

In his earlier outings this season Mr. Gilbert showed a formal reserve that could be interpreted as excessive caution. Here the brash swagger and buoyant swing he brought out in Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances From 'West Side Story' " laid that notion to rest. (So did the cocky hip thrusts that accompanied his finger snaps during the "Cool" segment, which drew approving chuckles.)

The Philharmonic musicians could play this music in their sleep; what mattered was that they did not. As detail after vivid detail emerged, you were constantly reminded of the enduring freshness and vitality in Bernstein's score. A vivacious account of the second suite from Falla's "Three-Cornered Hat" made for a rousing conclusion.
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