My Last NY Philharmonic Concert of 2011: Alan Gilbert & Anne Sofie von Otter

I attended my last New York Philharmonic concert of 2011 on Thursday, December 29, which was the second presentation by the orchestra of their last subscription program of the calendar year.  Alan Gilbert conducted, with guest artist Anne Sofie von Otter.  The program consisted of Josef Haydn's Symphony No. 88 in G, six songs by Franz Schubert orchestrated by various individuals, the complete Mother Goose Ballet by Maurice Ravel, and as a finale, Ravel's "La Valse."

This program illustrates both the strong points and the less strong points of Alan Gilbert's leadership of the NYP this season.  The strongest of the strong points is that the orchestra played magnificently.  Only in the first movement of the Haydn did I sense a less-than-immaculate performance, as some of the string playing in the turbulence of the development section seemed slightly loosely-knit, but apart from that one could not fault the quality of the playing, and the interpretations were all immensely satisfying. 

The next strong point is that the program did not consist largely of central core repertory that has been recently performed by the orchestra.  Under the prior music director, the overwhelming majority of the pieces presented in subscription concerts came from that central core repertory and was repeated from recent seasons.  I kept track as that music directorship unfolded, and it seemed like we were hearing the same things over and over again, and we were, as most of the works that were programmed had been played by the orchestra within the previous five years.  Under Gilbert, at least most of the masterpieces we are hearing are not repeats of recent season. The Haydn symphony we heard had not been played by the NYP since 2004, some of the Schubert songs were NYP premieres, and the few that weren't hadn't been performed in a very long time, and even the Mother Goose Ballet was last played a decade ago.  Only "La Valse" was done recently, in 2008.  (It seemed to be on the program almost every year during the Zubin Mehta years, by the way – at least, it seemed that way to me, but I'm sure the record will probably show that it wasn't…)

The weaker point is that this season, by contrast to his first two at the helm, Gilbert has been more conservative about programing music by less-well-known composers and more recent composers.  This same program could have been presented in 1920 (apart from Benjamin Britten's orchestration of Die Forelle, and of course there is undoubtedly an older orchestration that could have been used, since the song was written in 1817 and orchestrating Schubert's songs has been a profitable passtime since the 19th century).  I think it would be a good idea if the NYP presented programs that – with the exception of those devoted to one large work – could not have been presented so long ago.  Especially in a program like this which consisted of several works of moderate length, it would have made sense, in my view, to ditch "La Valse," as fine as the performance was, and instead include a late 20th century or even reasonably contemporary (early 21st century) short piece prior to the Mother Goose Ballet.

But they pay Gilbert the big bucks to devise these programs, and I'm just a spectator taking pot-shots here.  The program on its own terms worked very well, the sequence of pieces was excellent, the Schubert song selections played to von Otter's strengths as a communicative artist, and the sheer splendor of the Philharmonic's sound in Ravel must be heard to be believed.  I would love to hear more of Max Reger's orchestrations of Schubert songs, so I hope there will be further exhumations.  It was also delightful to hear an orchestration of "An Silvia" by unknown late 19th century hands, dug out of the NYP sheet music archives, last played when the legendary Anton Seidl was principal conductor. I'm glad I went, and it was a nice finish to my concert calendar for 2011.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.