Abu Dhabi Classics kicks off this month with the New York Philharmonic's UAE debut. Diane Nottle looks at what the orchestra is doing under its new director, Alan Gilbert, and what audiences can expect to hear It is a new era for the New York Philharmonic. The orchestra's opening-night gala was televised across the US; the first three subscription programmes of its 2009-10 season are under its belt and it has completed its first month under its 25th music director, Alan Gilbert.
Later this month, the orchestra's five-city Asian Horizons tour culminates in its Abu Dhabi debut. In New York this season, the philharmonic has demonstrated a renewed energy. Under Gilbert's predecessors (Lorin Maazel for the last seven seasons and, previously, Kurt Masur), it lived up to its status as one America's - and the world's - pre-eminent orchestras. Still, while approaching technical perfection, the music could at times sound staid and academic. Gilbert's early concerts have brought a new sense of excitement, even surprise, to the orchestra's Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Center.
"After nearly two decades of elder statesmen at the orchestra's helm, it is refreshing to see a new chief who is relatively young and obviously well disciplined," Barrymore Laurence Scherer wrote in The Wall Street Journal's review of opening night. Anthony Tommasini, the chief classical music critic at The New York Times, agreed: "The music, and the music-making, were so fresh and dynamic that not a trace of agenda came through."
Gilbert, 42, was a "favourite son" candidate in the search for Maazel's successor. His parents, Michael Gilbert and Yoko Takebe, were violinists in the orchestra; his father has retired, but his mother is still a regular on stage. The first native New Yorker to head the orchestra in its 167-year history, Gilbert made more than a dozen appearances as guest conductor since 2001. Thus far, the season's New York concerts reflect what UAE audiences can expect to hear when the Philharmonic opens this year's Abu Dhabi Classics series. The first, on October 23 at the Emirates Palace auditorium, consists of Mahler's First Symphony, Titan, and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 4 in G major with the pianist Emanuel Ax as soloist.
The next evening, at Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain, will feature more Beethoven: the Seventh Symphony, and the Brahms Violin Concerto in D major with the German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann as soloist. New York audiences heard both concertos with the same soloists. Ax, 60, hardly needed an introduction, having achieved elder-statesman status in the music world and the philharmonic where, suddenly, youth is considerably more noticeable. Zimmermann, 44, may have been less known to concertgoers. After making his entrance in the violin concerto with a flourish of his bow, he proved himself to be a solid, technically proficient soloist. He did not exude the rock-star charisma of a Joshua Bell but was intently focused on his instrument and the music, playing the more lyrical passages in the first movement with a special sweetness and an ever-so-subtle vibrato. The chemistry between him and Gilbert was visible in their body language, and the conductor's gaze never wavered during the cadenza near the end of the first movement. The violinist did not toss off a lot of fireworks - in fact, the Brahms was the most restrained performance of the season to date - until the moment in the third movement when his left leg kicked out from the knee, as if to say: "I've nailed it!"
The orchestra's performance of Mahler's Third Symphony demonstrated Gilbert's style, and it may offer an idea of what to expect of Mahler One on tour. Gilbert conducted the hour-and-45-minute work without a score, so was free to move about his empty podium. (His movement is not dance per se, despite his tendency to plié when drawing out a section of the orchestra.) In slower, broader passages, Gilbert's whole-body gestures prompted one concertgoer to wonder if he practised tai chi, while in quicker ones he tended to bounce, his shiny black hair echoing The Beatles circa 1964 before falling back perfectly in place. Throughout the piece, the mezzo-soprano Petra Lang's smile suggested she liked what she was hearing, and at the end shouts of "Bravo!" preceded applause.
Gilbert has already made notable departures from the routines Avery Fisher audiences have come to expect. Like James Levine when he took over the Boston Symphony Orchestra five years ago, he has reconfigured the orchestra seating, splitting the first and second violin sections and placing the violas between them. Twice he has given subscription audiences tutorials on pieces they were about to hear: a 10-minute introduction to the leitmotifs in Arnold Schoenberg's rarely performed Pelleas und Melisande and a dialogue with the orchestra's composer in residence, Magnus Lindberg, on his short piece EXPO, commissioned for opening night.
At a recent concert, Gilbert also placed Charles Ives's Unanswered Question in an unusual position as a prelude to a Beethoven concerto. The two pieces would "be played without a pause between them", the programme noted, and it wasn't kidding. When Gilbert mounted the podium, Ax took his seat at the piano and waited patiently through Ives's brief, haunting piece before launching into the opening solo measures of the concerto. The performance was playful at times and masterly throughout.
Orchestral programmes are always subject to change, of course, but at time of writing no Ives is scheduled on the Asian Horizons tour. Still, as the Philharmonic's president and executive director, Zarin Mehta, said in an opening-night programme note, the tour illustrates "the power of music to cross borders and unite people of very differing backgrounds". Last week, the orchestra lost the chance to make one such border crossing when it cancelled a scheduled visit to Havana after the US Treasury Department denied about 150 patrons, who had donated $10,000 (Dh36,730) each to travel with the musicians and thus finance the trip, permission to go to Cuba.
It was a disappointment, but when they play in the UAE later this month, the power of music to unite audiences from around the world will be clear.