x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Perfect pitch for classical music - and Abu Dhabi

The New York Philharmonic's performance at Emirates Palace on Friday was just what classical music and Abu Dhabi need.

With its rich sound, exquisite clarity and a characteristically American confidence, the New York Philharmonic reminded us on Friday night just how much fun classical music can be. Indeed, there could be no better fit for Abu Dhabi's nascent classical music scene than the New York Philharmonic under its new music director, Alan Gilbert, and the great pianist Emanuel Ax. The venerable orchestra already has a reputation for accessibility, with its annual open-air concerts in Central Park and its Young People's Concerts. Gilbert, who at 42 is a babe in arms by the standards of world-class conductors (not to mention his own mother, who plays violin in his orchestra), has made clear his intention of bringing some youthful vigour to the world of classical music. He has already developed something of a habit of chatting to the audience before a concert commences - a treat the Emirates Palace audience was denied on Friday night, alas.

Ax shares some of this approach with Gilbert, being particularly vocal on the subject of inter-movement applause. Clapping at each movement is the bugbear of many concertgoers, not to mention a great excuse for music snobs to sneer at newcomers, but Ax argues that it is entirely natural to express your appreciation immediately, even if that means applauding at the end of a vigorous first movement. He even goes so far as to nod and smile at the audience, acknowledging their applause and reassuring them in their guilty demonstration.

The classical music community at large is desperately pulling together to find a new audience and counter those commonly levelled claims of elitism, and while mediocre crossover acts might attract criticism for their dumbing down of fine music, the straightforward, uncomplicated approach of Ax and Gilbert may be just what is needed. And a country in which orchestral music is a relatively new concept, such as the UAE, provides just the clean slate the art could be looking for: a place to revisit all those behavioural conventions and archaic points of etiquette, unencumbered by tradition.

Because, after all, these concerts are all about the music, not the rituals of concertgoing, and Friday's combination of the structured lyricism of Beethoven's exquisite Piano Concerto No 4 in G major in the first half with the sweeping passions of Mahler's Symphony No 1 in D major in the second was a programme to please both novices and connoisseurs. Ax's performance of the Beethoven was delicate at times, exuberant at others, and taken at a fair pace. Both cadenzas were played with the light touch of a man totally in control of the music, switching with ease from sparkling runs to spiky, driving octave work. The orchestra, too, played with panache, careful not to overwhelm the soloist. The famous third movement, in particular, was executed with rhythmic gusto and lively precision.

Next, Mahler's Symphony No 1 in D major: one of the New York Philharmonic's signature works. Mahler was the orchestra's conductor for two years, a century ago, and this romantic work has been a favourite with the orchestra and its audiences ever since. It is certainly long, running at just under one hour, but the combination of a powerful performance, particularly strong in the wind sections, a characteristically rustic humour and a sense of narrative kept the audience enthralled, easily justifying the ecstatic applause with which it was received.

The breathy string harmonics that open the pastoral first movement are enough to still even the most restless audience, and Gilbert drew an ethereal, timeless mood from his orchestra, with the distant offstage trumpets and cuckooing clarinets sounding almost randomly, as if we genuinely were sitting in a forest in Bohemia. Indeed, the aural references are so literal that it truly does help to know that the work was originally intended as a five-part symphonic poem before losing a movement and Mahler's original descriptive programme notes. It is almost impossible not to picture a rural sunrise, a lively folk dance or, towards the end, a royal procession.

The vivid quality of the music seemed even more cinematic thanks to the strong, piercing wind section, the members of which played with a joyous Copeland-esque brassiness - perhaps an unconscious consequence of Gilbert's devotion to the contemporary musical repertoire. Certainly the decisive tone and rhythmic confidence throughout, as well as the humorous rustic episodes during the third movement and the regal brashness of the final movement spoke of a no-nonsense confidence that is characteristically American, and all the more approachable for it. Gilbert's interesting rearrangement of the usual musicians' seating plan may also have helped to separate the individual timbres of the instruments, creating a big, bright sound and revealing melodic threads that have been perhaps smothered in other performances.

After a long ovation and a short encore, the musicians, nearing the end of their Asian tour, looked delighted, if a little tired, and there is no greater guarantor of a good orchestral performance than a happy orchestra. And a happy orchestra means a happy audience. A shorter version of this review appeared yesterday in The National on Saturday.