Women of the Westminster Symphonic Choir
The American Boychoir
New York Philharmonic
New York Philharmonic/Gilbert – Mahler 3
Thursday, September 17, 2009 Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York
Reviewed by Gene Gaudette
At the beginning of summer, the New York Philharmonic launched an extensive campaign to promote its new music director, Alan Gilbert. Local media has been swamped with newspaper and magazine articles, and seemingly ubiquitous bus-shelter and phone-kiosk ads have saturated Manhattan's East and West Sides.
Gilbert made his official debut the evening before in the season-opening gala concert, and this Mahler 3 was the season's first subscription concert. Gilbert conducted without a score and employed antiphonal violins. The orchestra required an extended stage, and there were aberrations in balances: the double basses had little weight, and in a few forte passages the rest of the strings – or the woodwinds – were overwhelming the brass. Avery Fisher Halls is one of the most acoustically troublesome classical music venues.
Before the performance, Gilbert announced from the podium that the concert was being dedicated to the memory of Leon Kirchner, prominent American composer and pedagogue, who had died earlier in the day at the age of 90. Among his students was Maestro Gilbert.
As a whole, the performance represented something of an artistic breakthrough for the New York Philharmonic: a bland performance of a Mahler Symphony. Idiomatic character was missing, along with dramatic weight, humor, and – surprisingly for this orchestra – instrumental color and timbral variety; tempos were on the fast side, and big sections of the opening movement, second movement and finale seemed rushed. The big climaxes in the outer movements just didn't grab this listener at all. Dynamics were also a problem – there was nothing approaching a pianissimo save a few moments in the finale, and overall much of the symphony just seemed too loud. The exceptions occurred when the music is supposed to hit the top of the dynamic range: fortissimo climaxes not only failed to reach the shattering volume Gilbert's predecessor Lorin Maazel was able to elicit, but were completely free of any emotional or cathartic weight.
The mood abruptly shifted from dull to bizarre in the fourth movement. Petra Lang so over-articulated the diction of the opening words of Nietzsche's poem. She verbally decimated the poetry over the orchestra's static, monochromatic accompaniment – with the exception of the plaintive interjections from first oboe, which seemed to emerge from a far more subtle performance of the work. The one bright spot in the performance was the fifth movement, in which the Women of the Westminster Symphonic Choir sang like angels in dramatic counterpoint to the American Boychoir's impetuous, lively music-making; the orchestra responded with more energy and subtlety than had been evident in the preceding four movements. The finale lacked any sense of mystery, longing or ardor; the opening theme was always played one or two dynamic degrees too loud, and a few spurious luftpausen served only to slice the movement into smaller, leaner sections.
There was, nevertheless, very impressive solo playing from the first desk wind and brass players, particularly the "posthorn" trumpet player in the third movement. Usually this soloist is positioned backstage, but Gilbert positioned him outside the hall's rear balcony to sublime effect. I cannot recall hearing these interjections played with not only flawless ease but with such charm and beauty. In the opening movement, concertmaster Glenn Dicterow and principal trombonist Joseph Alessi brought strong character to their contributions.
But not even these flashes of depth could save a performance that was tame, tepid, perfunctory, just plain boring – and far below the standards one has come to expect from the Philharmonic.