From Ma to Mahler, Gilbert concludes Philharmonic tenure with friends old and new

Fri Jun 09, 2017 at 11:36 am
Alan Gilbert conducted the New York Philharmonic Thursday night in his final program as music director.

Alan Gilbert conducted the New York Philharmonic Thursday night in his final program as music director.

Alan Gilbert’s tenure as the New York Philharmonic’s music director concludes with this week’s subscription concerts. Going by Thursday night’s concert in David Geffen Hall, these final days will be a celebration that balances the convivial and the serious.

The big piece for each night is Mahler’s Symphony No. 7. The first half on Thursday (to be repeated Friday) was a non-symphonic, non-classical collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma.

Ma brought a few members of his Silk Road Ensemble, and they mixed with some of the Philharmonic’s principals—violist Cynthia Phelps, cellist Carter Brey, and clarinetist Anthony McGill—with Gilbert himself playing violin.

The starry pick-up band played two pieces, excellent examples of Silk Road’s exploration of the classic musics of different cultures and countries. Thursday they represented two ends of the Mediterranean, with Ibn Arabi Postlude from Syrian composer Kinan Azmeh, and The Latina 6/8 Suite, a combination of original composing and arrangements of traditional music made by Silk Road bassist Edward Perez.

The music was attractive, and the playing was simply exceptional. McGill was the featured musician for Ibn Arabi Postlude, and what a satisfying joy it was to hear him play not only outside of the orchestra but outside of the entire classical tradition. He played with a beautiful, dark, warm sound, and took to the vocalized, quasi-microtonal quality of Azmeh’s phrases with not only ease but deep expressive sympathy and commitment. McGill is a virtuoso clarinetist, but even better and more important, he is a wonderful musician, speaking deeply through sound and color.

Perez’s combination of traditional Galician and Sicilian music and his own “Tanguillo” and “Fandango” was a feature for another great musician, Cristina Pato. She played some fluid piano, but mainly performed on her primary instrument, the Galician bagpipes. An excellent improviser whose musicality explodes with energy and fire, Prato commanded the stage and roused the audience to a rapturous and rowdy ovation.

The Mahler symphony was the embodiment of this program’s title, “A Concert for Unity.” The Philharmonic was augmented by two dozen musicians from orchestras all over the world, including South Africa, Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, Australia, and Cleveland. (Likewise, the audience was augmented by representatives of the UN and ambassadors from these musicians’ homes).

Bringing people together through music is as ancient as mankind itself, and while the long-term results still remain to be determined, there’s always the in-the-moment playing. The surprise was the selection: unity is predominately expressed through Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, obvious but worthwhile and meaningful.

Mahler was an unexpected vehicle for international unity, but looking past the surface revealed the wisdom. Where Beethoven’s view was celestial, the promise of man in God’s cosmos, Mahler’s is earthy, incredibly human and real. While his pleasures and pains were uniquely his own, his expression of the experience of pleasure and pain together, of living with the knowledge (even if hidden) that life is circumscribed by death, are truly universal.

The Philharmonic can fall out of bed and play Mahler, and with a complement of extra musicians the orchestra produced a huge sound, especially the strings. Yet it was still an idiomatic Mahler sound, with a range of colors and the composer’s uncanny combinations of timbres that carry both bite and beauty. And even with the unexpected size of the string sound—which was also extra sweet—all the details were clear, a tribute to the precise playing and Gilbert’s excellent shaping of the symphony.

Once again this was a chance to hear the conductor’s great strength in holding the long view and seeing that everything supported it. His pace throughout was deliberate not lethargic, the music unfolding and putting itself together in front of the listener.

Mahler’s Seventh is mysterious and, in performance, frequently obdurate. One reason is that it carries a linear narrative without the sense of obvious drama and characterization in the composer’s other symphonies—one has to make the effort to meet it more than halfway. The other reason is that it starts in media res, without any introductory material.

While an immediate plunge into icy waters is recommended, the sonorous tenor horn call can be too abrupt. With Gilbert’s ambling tempo one could hear, and linger on the musical idea, and that revealed the following developments with clarity and logic.

There were no extremes in the performance, no pressing at the edges of the Nachtmusik movements or the Scherzo (with Mahler’s wonderful expressive marking, “shadowy”). This was playing deep in Mahler’s sound world and with complete understanding of his ideas, and that’s as fine as Mahler gets.

The New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert play Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday. Wynton Marsalis performs as part of the concert Friday night.

One Response to “From Ma to Mahler, Gilbert concludes Philharmonic tenure with friends old and new”

  1. Posted Jun 09, 2017 at 6:06 pm by David Blumberg

    Uh, you left out the top guest Musician at that Concert Saturday.
    Principal Clarinetist of the Berlin Philharmonic Wenzel Fuchs!!!

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