Alan Gilbert Takes the Philharmonic to Europe

Classic Arts Features   Alan Gilbert Takes the Philharmonic to Europe
 
Alan Gilbert leads the NY Philharmonic on its Winter European tour beginning Jan. 21 in Barcelona and ending Feb. 4 in London. The maestro shares his observations on the value of touring, the repertoire, and the soloists chosen for this journey.


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"One of the important reasons to tour," says New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert, "is the possibility of strengthening the bond between orchestra and conductor." No wonder, then, that a mere three weeks after kicking off his inaugural season, he and the musicians embarked on the five-country, eleven-concert Asian Horizons tour. "Playing the same repertoire repeatedly, in different cities, really forces you to discover new things about each other," he explains. "That's why, when we planned the opening of this first season, we made a conscious decision to hit the road as soon as possible." The decision was, in the conductor's retrospective assessment, a wise one. "I'd say that our Asian Horizons tour led to a very healthy and happy breakthrough; the Orchestra and I quickly took our musical relationship to the next level."

Now, only three months after returning from Asia, the Philharmonic is off again : this time to Europe. "Touring Europe offers a wonderful opportunity for me to introduce my partnership with the New York Philharmonic to a part of the world where I've spent much of my career," says Mr. Gilbert. Although he was born in New York City (in fact, he's the first native New Yorker to become Music Director in the New York Philharmonic's 168 years), his previous positions were primarily with European orchestras. He served as chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic from 2000 to 2008, when he was named conductor laureate. Since 2004 he has also been principal guest conductor of the NDR Symphony Orchesra in Hamburg, with whom he performed on tour in November.

Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic will visit 9 European cities, giving 13 performances over 15 days, beginning on January 21 with a concert in Barcelona and concluding on February 4 at London's Barbican Centre. Along the way they will play in Zaragoza, Madrid, Zurich, Frankfurt, Cologne, Dortmund (the Orchestra's debut there), and Paris. The hectic schedule is typical of a major orchestra on tour, certainly, although the challenging programs Mr. Gilbert has selected will require extra stamina from all of the musicians involved. "We're always trying to find pieces that are appropriate for a tour," he says, "works that show the Orchestra in a really spectacular way and that are exciting and fun for audiences to hear. Of course, the criteria are the same when selecting programs for our New York concerts; it's just that when we travel there are more parameters to consider. All of the various presenters have needs and requests; perhaps a piece we would like to play has just been performed in the same hall by another orchestra, for instance. So we try to be both practical and flexible while always preserving our sense of what makes a compelling program."

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One particularly noteworthy work the musicians are bringing along is EXPO by New York Philharmonic Marie-Jos_e Kravis Composer-in-Residence Magnus Lindberg. Written expressly for Mr. Gilbert and the Orchestra, EXPO was premiered in New York City on the Opening Night Concert this past September. It was well received then, on its repeat performances in New York, and on the Asian tour. Its European premiere will take place in Madrid : the third stop on the Orchestra's tour : on a program that also includes Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2, with soloist Yefim Bronfman, and Sibelius's Symphony No. 2.

Prokofiev's ferocious Second Concerto : a product of the composer's "bad boy" period (the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter said the third movement evoked images of "a dragon devouring its young") : is a notoriously fearsome challenge for even the most well-equipped virtuoso pianist. It is closely associated with Yefim Bronfman, which may be one reason why Mr. Gilbert is featuring it so prominently in his European programs (it will be performed seven times during the tour). "Yefim Bronfman is one of the great pianists of our time," Mr. Gilbert rhapsodizes, "and Prokofiev's Concerto is one of his specialties. Personally, I can't wait to hear him play it."

Another featured program opens with the Symphony No. 49, La passione, a rarely played gem from Haydn's so-called Sturm und Drang period, and ends with Alban Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra. Haydn symphonies are increasingly the province of period-instrument ensembles, so Mr. Gilbert's choice is daring in a way, and provides an opportunity for him to show off the Orchestra's stylistic versatility. The Berg is an early-20th-century masterpiece (the late Michael Steinberg, former Program Annotator for the New York Philharmonic, described it as "Mahler's Eleventh" Symphony), though it is highly unusual to hear it concluding a concert : yet another example of Mr. Gilbert's bold programming.

Between the Haydn and the Berg, the Orchestra will play Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and John Adams's The Wound-Dresser, a setting of poetry by Walt Whitman. "I'm always proud when we can take an American work to international arenas," Mr. Gilbert says, "though the fact that The Wound-Dresser is American is not why we chose it; that was because it's an important and extremely moving piece of music." Mr. Gilbert has a close connection with Mr. Adams's music, having made his Metropolitan Opera debut conducting that company's production of the composer's opera Doctor Atomic.

The Wound-Dresser will be sung by Thomas Hampson, who this season is the Philharmonic's first-ever Artist-in-Residence. The distinguished American baritone says it's a work that both he and Mr. Gilbert feel very strongly about. While many consider it an anti-war piece, "It's not," he insists. "It's a human reflection, a recognition of the horror of aggression. If anything, it's pro-compassion : that's one of the things that's so beautiful and moving about it."

Mr. Hampson says he is particularly excited about making this journey with Mr. Gilbert. "There's a depth and profundity to Alan's music-making that's immensely satisfying. He's really a 'musician's musician.' All of his ideas and insights : they're all there in the music."

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Andrew Farach-Colton is a regular contributor to Gramophone magazine.

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