Some orchestras know what they want in a music director. Chicago wants power, aka bombast, while Boston wants elegance, aka tedium, Cleveland wants diplomacy, aka don’t piss off the donors, while Philadelphia wants tact, aka don’t piss off the players.
The New York Philharmonic, however, has run through a huge range of music directors–and sounds–over the last fifty years. After the flamingly charismatic but technically challenged Leonard Bernstein, they hired the technically brilliant but fatally uncharismatic Pierre Boulez, then the technically competent but interpretively extravagant Zubin Mehta, then the technically competent but interpretively circumspect Kurt Masur, and then the technically brilliant and interpretively extravagant but often willfully weird Lorin Maazel.
Maazel last entertained Ann Arbor audiences in two shows of classical favorites during his final season with the NYPO in February 2009. Now the orchestra is back with its new music director, Alan Gilbert, for another two shows of classical favorites. And I do mean favorites: The first night there’s Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture and “Linz” Symphony followed by Brahms’ First Symphony, and the second night there’s Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and Bloch’s Schelomo followed by Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony.
Local audiences know by now what to expect from the New York Philharmonic: a tight-knit ensemble featuring virtuosic principals producing crisp colors and a polished tone. But who knows what to expect from Alan Gilbert? A young forty-five and the son of two Philharmonic violinists, Gilbert built his reputation as a conductor with the Royal Stockholm Symphony and the Santa Fe Opera. The recorded evidence is slim, and I’m familiar only with his Stockholm Mahler’s Ninth, a finely calibrated, subtly nuanced, and obviously sincere performance that wants only passionate expressivity to achieve greatness.
Will Gilbert and the New York achieve greatness in Ann Arbor? Given the standard repertoire they’re playing, it should be easy to tell. Will Brahms’ First’s massive slow introduction flow into its dramatic opening movement or will it just shift gears? Will the gargantuan brass chorale that caps the First’s finale arrive with majestic inevitability or simply show up with brutal impudence?
As for Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, there’s no doubt the orchestra can handle the score’s many technical difficulties: they’ve been doing so nearly every season since shortly after the work’s premiere in 1893. But can Gilbert and the orchestra handle the agonizing pain of the opening movement’s climax without flinching, and can they portray the closing movement’s abysmal despair without succumbing to sentimental tricks like exaggerating dynamic contrasts? In other words, will Gilbert prove brilliant and passionate–or merely brilliant?
This article has been edited since it appeared in the February 2013 Ann Arbor Observer. Alan Gilbert’s age has been corrected.