Gilbert and Philharmonic provide a searing, uplifting night with Schoenberg, Beethoven

Thu May 04, 2017 at 12:03 pm
Alan GIlbert conducted the New York Philharmonic Wednesday night at David Geffen Hall. File photo: Joseph Sinnot

Alan GIlbert conducted the New York Philharmonic Wednesday night at David Geffen Hall. File photo: Joseph Sinnot

On paper, the New York Philharmonic’s Wednesday night concert looked intriguing. With Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw set with the Beethoven Symphony No. 9, there was the promise of an enormous range of expressive experiences and a journey from the deepest dark to the most glowing light.

The actual concert, through a combination of conception and execution, far exceeded  expectations, creating a special, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime event.

In his tenure with the Philharmonic, Gilbert has put together imaginative programs that have musicians and composers talking to each other across the centuries, often with imaginative and skillful stagecraft, like the production of Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre, and the New York Philharmonic 360 concerts at the Park Avenue Armory. Conductors like Michael Tilson Thomas and Esa-Pekka Salonen are heaped with praise for similar, and often less ambitious, concerts, while Gilbert’s achievements have been strangely undervalued.

Wednesday’s concert at David Geffen Hall was less obviously ambitious in means and scope, but it was the most meaningful of all such programs. There was some stagecraft involved, and it was as simple and as brilliant as could be.

Schoenberg’s piece is literally a story with music. He wrote the text, a first person tale of a Jew who survives a massacre by German soldiers. The most important performers are a narrator and a male chorus.

Actor Gabriel Ebert, making his Philharmonic debut, was the narrator, and his performance was extraordinary. He was faithful to the rhythms of Schoenberg’s Sprechstimme while imaginative with the pitch outlines. He was also dramatic in the extreme, delivering his lines with a brittle intensity, like boots tramping across acres of broken glass. He was a madman who had found just enough lucidity to tell the most terrible story there was.

Schoenberg backs the words with fast-shifting, atonal details; the instruments pass the row around, there are quick changes in dynamics and timbres. Gilbert and the orchestra delivered it all with stimulating exactitude, verve, and power.

As the soldiers count how many Jews there are to send to the gas chambers, the chorus sings the Sh’ma Yisroel prayer in preparation of death. This is where the stagecraft came in.

As Ebert spoke the count, one could hear marching from the back of the hall. This was the chorus, coming down each aisle. As the man at the head of each line neared the stage, they all stopped, and sang. The thrill of this, the closeness, the ominous, threatening marching followed by singing, was overwhelming. The dramatic abstraction of the piece broke apart, and it all became real, grim, eviscerating.

The lights went down; the audience applauded as the choristers marched back out of the hall, but there was the sense that their reaction was irrelevant for the time being, that the Philharmonic was following a plan with a greater purpose.

Sure enough, the lights went up, and Gilbert immediately cued Symphony No. 9. After the frightening experience of A Survivor from Warsaw, the opening A minor chord was clarifying. But it also was pregnant with foreboding portents of things to come; the first few measures running along like a lit fuse.

Gilbert’s tempo was quick, but not unusually so. There was the feeling of wild forces barely under control, the sensation of hurtling forward. The momentum was exciting, and that feeling built on what was left over from the Schoenberg to heighten every moment into piquancy.

The orchestra played with an exceptionally warm sound and blend, with individual voices and statements floating above the textures. Gilbert’s attention to phrasing and form added an elegance to the middle two movements. The trio in the scherzo and the cantabile section of the slow movement took notable shape and emphasis by emerging out of the cornucopia of ideas and reveries in the music.

This was a concert that staked out vital extremes of experience and emotion, all culminating in what became the breathtaking contrast between A Survivor from Warsaw and the “Ode to Joy.” Soloists soprano Camilla Tilling, mezzo Daniela Mack, tenor Joseph Kaiser, and bass-baritone Eric Owens (Mack and Kaiser were making their Philharmonic debuts) sang with urgency and vehemence. Like Ebert, they broke through the performance barrier to forge intimacy with the audience, this time in companionship.

The musicality and expression of the orchestra was wonderful, exemplified by the sweet, serene bassoon counterpoint as the violas and cellos sang the theme, and the raucous, near-drunken playing from the bass trombone after the Turkish March.

The Westminster Symphonic Choir sang with an even greater weight and richer sound than the orchestra, and with as much lust for life as the soloists. This was not a performance where one admired the music and playing from one step removed. It felt significant and historic, almost  as if one was at the symphony’s 1824 premiere, when listeners were stunned by the music’s formal audacity and then moved by its palpable joy and brotherhood.

With no intermission, the concert lasted less than 70 minutes. No one was shortchanged; the thinking and playing packed such a punch, and was so wrenching and fulfilling, that nothing else was required.

Every classical music organization in American wonders and worries about how to reach new audiences, to bring first-time concertgoers in the halls and have them come back. Vast sums of money are wasted on gimmicky thinking and marketing jargon, and end up doing little beyond making consultants happy.

The way to get people into the halls and have them return is to give concerts like this—events that take important, meaningful music and perform it with commitment, pure excitement and a wide range of intellectual and emotional power. 

This program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. May 9. nyphil.org


3 Responses to “Gilbert and Philharmonic provide a searing, uplifting night with Schoenberg, Beethoven”

  1. Posted May 05, 2017 at 2:51 pm by Richard & Elinor Albert

    One of the most stirring and exciting concerts we have ever attended in our over 25 years as members of the NY Philharmonic.

  2. Posted May 05, 2017 at 3:00 pm by Karen Schadow

    A fabulous and meaningful review – and true to what we the audience fe!t Thank you so much for writing it! We will miss Alan Gilbert terribly – and I agree that he seems undervalued for all his incredible creativity.

  3. Posted May 06, 2017 at 6:42 pm by Deborah Claire Procter

    Thank you for writing about contemporary music so refreshingly and without fear or apology. You capture what an audience needs to know, namely that there will be as you put it an “enormous range of expressive experiences and a journey from the deepest dark to the most glowing light.” This is the way to guide audiences into new seas of timbres and rich sound colours. Thanks also for identifying the bold stance of Maestro Gilbert who quietly and securely is showing a way forward in imaginative programming from the heart and not the head.

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