As he enters the final weeks of his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert is seeking to demonstrate the power of music as a positive and unifying force.
Arnold Schoenberg wrote A Survivor from Warsaw in 1947 on commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation. The two trumpets that open this short piece establish both its tone row and the Nazi death-camp’s horror, sustained by strident orchestration. Gabriel Ebert’s crystal-clear narration carefully followed the notated use of Sprechstimme, and the use of German represents the brutal Sergeant who beats the prisoners and orders them to count off so he will know how many are left to be sent to the gas chamber. As the tally gathered speed and the volume surged, the men of the Westminster Symphonic Choir entered from the rear of the auditorium to stand in the aisles and sing in unison the Hebrew words of the ‘Shema Yisroel’ prayer that is central to the Jewish liturgy and is recited when one is in contemplation of dying. The prisoners’ affirmation of their faith in defiance of their exterminators was powerful, and when ended the Hall was plunged into silence and darkness…
When the lights returned moments later, Gilbert began a thrilling account of Beethoven’s ‘Choral Symphony’, the Philharmonic continuing to be in top form, Gilbert managing tempos and dynamics in the first movement with care, keeping strings and winds in good balance as the timpani defined rhythms without overpowering other instruments, in contrast with their more prominent role in the ensuing Scherzo in which the strings were terrific in the fugal opening passages, with excellent horn and oboe solos highlighting during the Trio.
Following a pause to permit the Westminster men and the four vocalists to take their places, Gilbert launched a glorious traversal of the Adagio, in which the violas were especially resonant. The jarring opening of the Finale landed with great impact, and following preparatory and reminiscing passages, the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme was ushered in by cellos and double basses, then developed to preface the “O Freunde” recitative, here from Eric Owens. Joseph Kaiser also sang well in the ‘Turkish March’ episode and in quartet passages each voice stood out yet blended harmonically. The Westminster Choir provided many of the most uplifting moments, unfailingly responsive to Gilbert, and a testament to its director, Joe Miller.