Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Gilbert Smartens Up the Phil

Recent New Yorker and New York articles have depicted Alan Gilbert as leading the New York Philharmonic away from old-world stuffiness and toward a more laid-back intellectualism.

For Alex Ross, Gilbert's first season marks a great awakening after "two drowsy decades," a return to programming that puts his orchestra's "virtuosity in the service of ideas," part of a tradition that dates back to Mitropoulos and includes Bernstein's championing of new American music, Boulez's Rug Concerts, and Zubin Mehta's Horizons festivals.

Similarly, Justin Davidson describes a concert with Gilbert as "a little less drafty temple and more of a campus coffee house," where audiences can "hear and think about music in an atmosphere of animated informality."

It wasn't quite that casual, but the September 30 concert certainly felt more friendly, rewarding, and entertaining than any show I've been to in a while.

Most conductors, in fact most classical-music "experts," who talk about music rely on ten-dollar words that sound fancy but don't really say much; like a sermon, or Chinese food, they leave you feeling overwhelmed yet unsustained. Gilbert, on the other hand, introduced Magnus Lindberg, whose EXPO opened the night, to the audience with a straight-talking ten-minute interview session. Using the orchestra to demonstrate, the two discussed the thinking behind EXPO, and Lindberg talked thoughtfully about his approach to writing music.

This talk primed people for the piece; the woman to my left noted that she "liked it ... I thought I wouldn't, but I did. More than I thought I would."

It's been a while since I've had any real interaction with other audience members at concerts, but Gilbert finds a way to get people talking. After Ives's Symphony No. 2, another concertgoer commented on how different the piece was from her assumptions about Ives. The performance certainly made a case for this piece as part of the mainstream symphonic canon, and I ended up spending the entire intermission locked in an absorbing discussion. Usually, I don't even wake up until the second half starts.

Both Ross and Davidson fear that Gilbert is too egg-headed for his own good, that he "lacks heat" or forgets that people "go to concerts to have fun." I had plenty of fun on September 30 and am happy to give up some glamour (or whatever) for a night that stimulates. If you want spectacle, go to Cirque du Soleil; I'll be at the coffee house, sitting cross legged on the floor with Alan Gilbert and the New York Phil.