Alan Gilbert and the NY Philharmonic hit Europe

Albert ImperatoMon 25th January 2010
With Alan Gilbert on the rooftop garden of New York's Metropolitan Museum of ArtWith Alan Gilbert on the rooftop garden of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art

How a programme can make you talk - and think

I received an e-mail today from Alan Gilbert (a 21C client) telling me that the first couple of concerts of his first European tour with the New York Philharmonic have gone very well. The first few stops on the nine-city tour are in Spain, and there will be concerts in Zurich (1/26), Frankfurt (1/27), Cologne (1/28 and 29), Dortmund (1/30), Paris (2/1 and 2/2) and London (2/3 and 2/4). I urge anyone who enjoys a great orchestral concert to check them out because, in my humble opinion, the orchestra is playing at a very high level and the programs on the tour are superb. Check out the tour repertoire at a news release at Alan’s website.

A publicist recommending his own client’s work is, of course, extremely suspect, but nonetheless I’m going to go out on limb here and say that what Alan and the Phil have done in just four months together is simply extraordinary. Re-reading the media commentary thus far, I think the New York critics have mostly acknowledged the fact that the orchestra sounds great and is playing with more color, variety and feeling than they have in a long while. But I don’t think any of the reports have really fully conveyed the renewed spirit in the hall and in the audience. Part of that is because so much of the most interesting and telling comments are happening out of earshot: the kind of industry banter, inside and outside the Philharmonic, that isn’t heard and hence isn’t noted by the writers in their reports.

Backstage, I overhear many artists and artistic administrators from great orchestras and venues across the country, and around the world, emphatically praising the orchestra (one top administrator from a big American orchestra recently said that he had simply never heard the Philharmonic play so well). These comments are not just made directly to Alan, but also in the quiet asides people are sharing with each other. Alan takes it all in stride (for him, it’s all about the music), but he’s also proud and very much enjoying what has been achieved thus far. Over and over again he praises the New York Philharmonic musicians and continues to show a sense of youthful wonderment at having the opportunity to make music with them on a regular basis.

One other thing I’ve noticed is that people seem to have stopped talking about how bad the acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall are. I’m not a great audiophile, but the orchestra’s warmer sound seems to have eliminated the strident edge I would sometimes hear, especially when the orchestra played loudly.

And a word about the audience: they are quieter, more receptive, more varied, and more enthusiastic than I can ever remember. The recent all-Russian program had multiple shows sold out. And many of the performances I’ve attended have ended in enthusiastic standing ovations. Having lived just a block away from Avery Fisher Hall for 25 years now, having this sense of excitement and event so close by has really transformed my sense of musical life in New York City. Sure, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center are home to many great shows week after week, but there’s nothing quite like the thrill of the hometown orchestra putting on shows people are talking about. It’s something like the thrill of having a local sports team winning games and having a chance at a championship.

Back to what the Philharmonic is playing on tour, I’ve heard everything they’ve done thus far except for Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2, which they will play when they get back at a single concert at Carnegie Hall in February. One of the programs has a tragic thread that extends from Haydn’s Symphony No. 49 (“La passione”) and Schubert’s “Unfinished” to Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra and John Adams’ The Wound-Dresser. I thought Alan was incredibly brave to program the Berg last on the program. But in his concept for this program, the Berg work “finishes” what Schubert had started and thus needs to be the final work of the evening. That the work of a contemporary American composer fits so well on this otherwise Austrian program says something about the unique ability of music to transcend both time and place. Another client of ours, baritone Thomas Hampson, sings the Adams work, which is based on Whitman poems that recount the great American poet’s harrowing experiences as a nurse during the Civil War. Hampson has a deep affinity for Whitman’s poetry and the result, to my ears, is powerfully moving.

Another tour program features two big Russian works, both written in the early 20th century, and both as different as can be: Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto (1912) and Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 (1906-7). The Prokofiev work is a tour-de-force of high-octane pianistic virtuosity. As he did in New York, Yefim “Fima” Bronfman is playing it on tour (Bronfman is also a 21C client). Watching his fingers run at lightening speed up and down the keyboard, or his hands jumping from one end of the keyboard to the other to nail the crazily separated octaves, I honestly can’t comprehend how a human being is capable of such feats. After the concert I heard Fima joke that he was lucky to have played so cleanly that evening. That remark was partially a show of modesty, but there was also something quite truthful in it. To meet the technical challenges of the piece, he explained, you have to hope that your preparation will keep you from flying off the rails when you are trying to nail all those far-flung chords and octaves.

As to Alan’s take on Rachmaninov’s ultra-romantic Second Symphony, I’ve heard at least a dozen conductors live and on recordings and Alan’s was as good as it gets. The rich sound the orchestra makes – particularly the strings and brass – fits this piece like a glove, but Alan also does a fabulous job of conveying the all-important architecture of the piece. My 21C colleague and best buddy Glenn Petry told me afterwards (via Twitter no less!) that he was extremely impressed by the performance but just doesn’t love the piece like I do. Glenn’s much more of an “edge” guy when it comes to his musical tastes, so for him the Prokofiev was what really what he connected with. The point is: the pairing of the two works really got us, and some of the people we brought to the show, talking. A few days later the Rachmaninov vs. Prokofiev chatter was all the rage at 21C’s offices. But that’s exactly what a good music program is supposed to do: make you talk and make you think.

Some people have asked me what the Philharmonic is doing these days in terms of recordings, and for now I believe the only way to hear Alan and the Phil together is at iTunes, where you can buy a season pass. The $149 asking price isn’t cheap, but you’ll hear the orchestra with Alan – and other conductors such as Esa-Pekka Salonen, who conducts Bartók, Ravel and Debussy in the latest installment – in both familiar and unfamiliar fare. Thus far I’ve only been sampling the downloads, and the utterly resplendent finale in Mahler’s Third Symphony – perhaps the most beautiful 20+-minute stretch of music ever written – made me eager to hear more.

One final note: I’m sure there are at least a few music writers about classical music out there who might consider this post about Alan and the New York Philharmonic a bit of publicist propaganda, but, to use a somewhat childish comeback, it’s only propaganda if what you’re saying isn’t true! Sure, these observations might not be true for someone else, but it’s definitely how I see – and hear – things right now. Leave me a comment if you agree or disagree, but by all means try to hear them so that you can decide for yourself.

Albert Imperato

Albert Imperato is co-founder of 21C Media Group, a classical music and performing arts PR, marketing and consulting firm. His on-line journal gives a window into the New York music world, as seen through the eyes of a leading PR guru.

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