April 14, 2003

I took two visiting friends to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra last Thursday, and for the first time I can recall, I was disappointed by the ensemble's performance, the orchestra under the direction of guest conductor Alan Gilbert.

I'll let David Patrick Stearns, the music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, handle the evening's opening piece ("Conductor and 1913 Work Make Their Orchestra Debuts"):

Gilbert arrived at his guest-conducting debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra with a program pregnant with metaphor. The evening's main piece, Wilhelm Stenhammar's Serenade in F, Op. 31, is full of incongruent instrumental choirs, often in different keys, finding their way toward a musical common ground....

The orchestra made its way through its first-ever performance of this singular, 1913 masterwork that stands, sometimes indecisively, among the comfort of musical tradition, the terrifying possibilities of the future, and a tentative sense of Swedish national pride.

No doubt the players also were adjusting to Gilbert's being a conductor and not a substitute violinist, which he was during the summer of 1990 when a student at the Curtis Institute of Music....Too bad that his program, both by the nature of the music and the difficulties performing it, didn't give us a clear sense of his artistic personality.

Simply by programming the Stenhammar -- a piece I've loved for years but never heard live -- he has my gratitude, even if Thursday's performance was rough by Philadelphia Orchestra standards. The ensemble was audibly struggling to parse a language that, in many ways, uses eclecticism as a means to enshrine ambivalence....

Hearing the piece performed by something other than a provincial orchestra, even in a less-than-finished performance, was a thrill of sorts; there were any number of moments, such as the cool, laser[-]like consistency of Jeffrey Khaner's flute solo, that caught the heart of the piece.

Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 4, performed after the intermission by the orchestra and soloist Horacio Gutierrez, was for me similarly uninspiring. Citing Stearns again:

[I]t's a sizable work by one of the 20th century's great pianistic minds, and you never know when a pianist will seize upon the piece with a special fire. Soloist Horacio Gutierrez gave it a clean, sleek Ravel treatment, but failed to take a strong interpretive stand.

Stearns took more kindly to the orchestra's rendition of Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole than I did, though the critic also was perhaps a bit backhanded with his compliments: "[A]ny conductor who can't bring that one off with flair probably shouldn't be in the business. Gilbert delivered the flash, with an added bonus: He looked beyond the sound and deeper into the content."

The piece is still new to me, so I'm happy to give Stearns the benefit of the doubt. He knows far more than I do, after all, and I already have learned much from him.


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