Gil­bert braves a chilly farewell

Hey, New York, it’s your mu­sic di­rec­tor’s last con­cert. Can’t you ac­knowl­edge him?

Los Angeles Times - - CULTURE MONSTER - MARK SWED MU­SIC CRITIC mark.swed@la­

SANTA BAR­BARA — Alan Gil­bert ended his eight-year ten­ure as mu­sic di­rec­tor of the New York Phil­har­monic, Amer­ica’s old­est and once-lead­ing orches­tra, on Mon­day night as many a con­duc­tor ends (or be­gins) a mu­sic di­rec­tor­ship — with Beethoven’s Ninth Sym­phony. Be­yond that, next to noth­ing was nor­mal.

Even the Mon­day part proved a lit­tle odd. Most peo­ple don’t vol­un­tar­ily leave a ma­jor post at the be­gin­ning of the week, as we were re­minded by the exit of the White House com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor ear­lier in the day. In clas­si­cal mu­sic, you say good­bye with a big week­end con­cert blowout. Mon­day is the slow­est day of the week for sell­ing tick­ets.

In fact, Gil­bert’s last con­certs in the orches­tra’s home at Lin­coln Cen­ter in New York went pretty much by the book with reg­u­lar week­end per­for­mances of Mahler’s chal­leng­ing Sev­enth Sym­phony. That’s not as big as the Mahler’s Eight (“Sym­phony of a Thou­sand”) that Gil­bert’s pre­de­ces­sor chose for his fi­nal per­for­mances, but Gil­bert made a ma­jor state­ment by call­ing the pro­gram “A Con­cert for Unity” and invit­ing mu­si­cians from many of the world’s po­lit­i­cal hot spots to par­tic­i­pate, as well as such su­per­stars as Yo-Yo Ma and Wyn­ton Marsalis.

Some ob­servers have found Gil­bert less than charis­matic, but New York’s top crit­ics weighed in, not­ing his ad­mirable am­bi­tion to ex­pand the role of an orches­tra that had be­come con­ser­va­tive and in­su­lar in its mu­sic and in the com­mu­nity, while keep­ing his ego out of his per­for­mances. In a fi­nal demon­stra­tion of his ef­forts to reach the peo­ple, Gil­bert left New York by con­duct­ing the orches­tra’s free sum­mer con­certs in New York City parks. Af­ter that things started get­ting weird. Last week in Vail, Colo., Gil­bert con­ducted five ma­jor sym­phonies, in­clud­ing the Mahler Sev­enth and Beethoven’s Ninth, as part of the New York Phil­har­monic’s an­nual sum­mer res­i­dency there. Gil­bert also gave the world pre­miere of a work by Ju­lia Adolphe, a star USC com­po­si­tion stu­dent.

But Gil­bert’s ac­tual farewell was even far­ther from home, with the New York Phil­har­monic placed on a makeshift out­door stage erected on the field of Santa Bar­bara City Col­lege’s La Playa Sta­dium. Bleacher seats over­looked the ocean. The con­cert cel­e­brated the 70th an­niver­sary of Mu­sic Academy of the West. With the ex­cep­tion of a few VIP seats up front, tick­ets were $10. More than 7,000 at­tended, prompt­ing of­fi­cials to claim it the largest clas­si­cal mu­sic event in the city’s his­tory.

The con­cert it­self was eas­ily as much about the Mu­sic Academy, the city and the col­lege as it was about Gil­bert and his New York orches­tra, which was com­plet­ing a four-year col­lab­o­ra­tion with the school. (The orches­tra doesn’t quite know what to do with it­self in the sum­mer and moves around a lot.) The evening be­gan with self-con­grat­u­la­tory speeches by ad­min­is­tra­tors and the mayor, while the sun set gor­geously in the back­ground. It took a while, but Gil­bert was fi­nally given a chance to say what great play­ers and peo­ple his mu­si­cians are, and the mayor read a procla­ma­tion mak­ing Mon­day Alan Gil­bert Day.

Some thought is re­quired in choos­ing what, if any­thing, should pre­cede Beethoven’s Ninth. In Ger­many, the sym­phony of­ten stands alone, let­ting the com­poser’s demo­cratic ide­al­ism speak for it­self, as was the case when it was played last month for world lead­ers dur­ing the Group of 20 sum­mit in Ham­burg. Jef­frey Ka­hane be­gan his Los An­ge­les Cham­ber Orches­tra per­for­mance in April with an in­sight­ful talk about the mu­sic and its mean­ing. A cou­ple of weeks ago, Gus­tavo Du­damel set the Beethoven Ninth tone at the Hol­ly­wood Bowl with Copland’s “Lin­coln Por­trait.” And Sun­day in Lon­don, a for­mer as­sis­tant con­duc­tor of the New York Phil­har­monic, Xian Zhang, be­gan a long con­cert at the Proms with Scot­tish com­poser James MacMil­lan’s mov­ing 45-minute “A Euro­pean Re­quiem,” full of Brexit con­no­ta­tions — the “Ode to Joy,” with which Beethoven ends his sym­phony, be­ing the Euro­pean Union’s an­them.

The tone for Mon­day’s “Ode to Joy” was more about joy than con­text. Here it was the New York Phil­har­monic’s cur­rent as­sis­tant con­duc­tor Joshua Gersen con­duct­ing the Mu­sic Academy Fes­ti­val Orches­tra, made up of the high-level sum­mer stu­dents, in Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Three Lat­inAmer­i­can Dances.” Mu­si­cally, these lively Latin riffs on Leonard Bern­stein’s Sym­phonic Dances from “West Side Story” seemed too triv­ial, espe­cially given that one of the lat­est works by Frank (who is an academy res­i­dent com­poser this sum­mer) is her “Con­quest Re­quiem,” which speaks to the demo­cratic is­sues of our time. But the Bern­stein con­nec­tion was apt, since Gil­bert seemed to take a few cues from Bern­stein’s 1964 New York Phil­har­monic record­ing of Beethoven’s Ninth when his orches­tra came on stage. Like Bern­stein but with even greater ac­cen­tu­a­tion, Gil­bert punched out rhythms ag­gres­sively in the first move­ment and ended the sym­phony with mas­sive amounts of gusto.

The brash am­pli­fi­ca­tion Mon­day even sounded like the crudely mas­tered cur­rent CD ver­sion of the Bern­stein per­for­mance. Over­all, though, Gil­bert couldn’t al­ways main­tain in­ter­est or dra­matic ten­sion. The sec­ond move­ment had less rhyth­mic def­i­ni­tion and propul­sion than the first (and needed more). The lyri­cal rhap­sody in the slow move­ment may sim­ply have been im­pos­si­ble given how lit­tle the loud­speak­ers al­lowed for sweet­ness in the strings or bloom in the winds. The vo­cal soloists in the “Ode to Joy” Fi­nale — Su­sanna Phillips, Sasha Cooke, Joseph Kaiser and Mor­ris Robin­son — were lux­ury cast­ing, as was the Los An­ge­les Master Cho­rale.

But where was the feel­ing of cel­e­bra­tion? What a happy mo­ment this might have been had all the in­stru­men­tal­ists and singers, stu­dents and fac­ulty, joined in the per­for­mance. In­stead, there was the sad spec­ta­cle of a cold, cold orches­tra. Gil­bert worked it up to a frenzy, but the play­ers acted un­moved by the oc­ca­sion.

There was no ac­knowl­edg­ment of its mu­sic di­rec­tor from the orches­tra dur­ing the bows — no tap­ping of bows on stands, prac­ti­cally no glances from the play­ers at the con­duc­tor. Gil­bert shook hands his with his con­cert­mas­ter and his stand part­ner, but it also seemed as though, to the orches­tra, this had been more a job than an ode to joy.

Is it too L.A. to sug­gest that ap­pear­ances mat­ter? I hope the academy stu­dents no­ticed that when Master Cho­rale Mu­sic Di­rec­tor Grant Ger­shon hugged Gil­bert the stage sud­denly be­came ra­di­ant, de­spite the orches­tra mu­si­cians point­edly look­ing the other way. The fire­works over the ocean that fol­lowed also helped.

Chan­ning / Ek­bert

ALAN GIL­BERT, cen­ter, and the New York Phil­har­monic mark the end of an era dur­ing a Santa Bar­bara con­cert at­tended by 7,000.

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