Alan Gilbert opened this New York Philharmonic concert with John Adams’s The Chairman Dances, a “foxtrot” companion piece to his 1987 opera, Nixon in China. This work has established itself alongside some of Adams’s other early works (such as Short Ride in a Fast Machine), as core to the contemporary American canon. The playing took a while to settle in, with discrepancies of tempo early on, especially between the low strings and woodwinds. Later things coalesced better, Gilbert bringing out imaginative colors, although he seemed unable to draw a greater sense of humanity from the orchestra.
Very recently Esa-Pekka Salonen led the world premiere of his Cello Concerto, for Yo-Yo Ma, but here was a spectator. During the stage turnover Salonen and Gilbert introduced the work, the composer likening it to “one continuous zoom”, starting from vast “stylized chaos” and by the fend focusing on a single human. Further, his overarching goal was “to create an environment for internal narrative”. The opening movement is at first ambiguous and often nebulous, but its latter third becomes more fiery. The second, “nature”, movement is more organic, and embraces broad textures from the brass. This and the linked final movement make use of looping – live recording of the cello played back into the house via speakers following a time delay.
The stage setup was more successful dramatically than musically, the congas and bongos stationed immediately to the conductor’s right, leaving the player wonderfully close to the soloist, but unreasonably far from his percussion colleagues. The last movement is about “burn out” – when words fail, an individual trying desperately to communicate has no choice but to gesticulate wildly. Ma was pushed accordingly, with dynamic string crossings and stratospheric pitches, and remains a remarkable communicator.
Following intermission, Gilbert led a brisk rendition of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, richly painting the music throughout. The ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ conclusion was particularly raucous and effective.