For his final subscription concert as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert invited twenty-two musicians from nineteen countries – including concertmasters from Iran, South Africa, South Korea and Mexico – to join the orchestra for Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. Gilbert intends this “Concert for Unity” to be a first step toward the creation, under the auspices of the United Nations, of an international ensemble that will use the power of music to unite people. In a brief video Secretary-General António Guterres offered congratulations to Gilbert and also his support.
It seemed odd at first blush that Gilbert selected Mahler 7, but its optimistic character proved quite fitting. Moreover, expanding the orchestra served to make this expansive and painterly work feel even more so, celebratory rather than revelatory, with bright colors and engaging rhythms generating positive energy.
In the opening movement, Gilbert sustained an overarching tension as the music progressed from its dark opening – the tenor-horn solos beautifully played by trombonist Joseph Alessi – through stirring marches and gorgeously lyrical music to the exultant coda; the sound of the augmented string sections was marvelous, and Gilbert sure-handedly negotiated numerous changes of tempo.
The first ‘Nachtmusik’ is a walk with nature – lyrical cellos, cowbells and woodwinds evocative of birdsong – while the second is a romantic serenade embracing violin solos (Frank Huang) and the additional timbres of guitar and mandolin. Between these two movements, the Scherzo is a macabre dance, punctuated by shrieks. Later, cellists and double bassists produce a startling moment to realize Mahler’s instruction to play a pizzicato so hard that the strings hit the instruments’ wood with an audible snap.
The Philharmonic and guest musicians pulled out all the stops in the carnival and triumphant Finale, a fitting send-off for Gilbert, with trumpet fanfares, bells, and a reference to Die Meistersinger. Following such excitement the ovation was loud and long as the audience bade farewell to the Gilbert era – although he will be conducting free outdoor concerts in New York very soon and will return as a guest next season.