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Gilbert Leads Curtis Symphony Orchestra

Photo of Conductor Alan Gilbert by Mats Lundquist
Conductor Alan Gilbert, photo by Mats Lundquist
On Monday evening at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, Alan Gilbert, future Music Director of the New York Philharmonic and Curtis Institute of Music graduate, led the Curtis Symphony Orchestra in works of Barber, Beethoven, and Nielsen. Once Gilbert becomes Music Director in 2009, he will be the only native New Yorker to hold the post in the ensemble’s 165-year history, and just the second American-born and trained director after Leonard Bernstein – another Curtis graduate. [In the interest of full disclosure, Michael is also a Curtis graduate. -- Ed.] Furthermore, both of Gilbert’s parents have been violinists in the New York Philharmonic.

Persistently demanding at the podium, Gilbert guided the orchestra through Barber’s overture to The School for Scandal, op. 5, the composer’s first orchestral work, written when a student at Curtis in 1931 at the age of 21. Comedic, yet never slapstick, this fun neo-Romantic overture treks through an impressive amount of material. Thoughout, the presence of the string section somewhat outshone that of the winds and brass in the room.

The performance of Mahler’s transcription of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Minor, op. 95 ("Quartetto serioso") celebrates the conclusion of Curtis’s cross-disciplinary Op. 95 project, where sixteen student quartets learned the work, it was analyzed in music theory classes, and Beethoven’s letters were explored in literature classes -- the New York Times has reported that the wind players felt left out. Featuring strings alone, Gilbert elicited extreme dynamic contrast and figural detail by clearly cuing well in advance. The outcome of Gilbert’s easy rapport with the orchestra resulted in a strict, chamber-like reading of op. 95, with few traces of Mahler’s perceived high-Romantic heaviness. At times, one wished that the powerhouse first violin section might listen beyond their section; yet, their marvelously clear small notes in the final movement were sparklingly clear.

Other Reviews:

David Patrick Stearns, Curtis players strong in Nielsen work (Philadelphia Inquirer, February 13)
Nielsen’s rather unchallenging harmonic language in Symphony No. 3 in D Minor, op. 27 ("Sinfonia espansiva") was assisted through appealing orchestration and voicing. Gilbert made sure ground tempi were stably adhered to through each movement, while allowing shapes within larger structures to be personalized by section or soloist. As in the Barber, while having nice occasions alone, the wind and brass sections lacked the fortitude to balance the august string sections. At one point in the final movement, the first violins -- again likely only listening to themselves -- lunged forward, leaving conductor, brass, and winds behind. Gilbert kindly shook the hand of nearly every orchestra member at the concert’s end.

This concert was repeated Tuesday evening at Carnegie Hall, as reviewed in the New York Times and the New York Sun.

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