Legendary orchestra visits Davies Hall

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Wednesday May 11, 2016
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Alan Gilbert, American conductor, violinist and current music director of the New York Philharmonic, will be resigning his post in August 2017, after eight years with the orchestra. His decision to move on, more than a little surprising at the time, has not kept him from fulfilling contractual touring duties. He appeared last weekend with the legendary orchestra for a two-night stand at Davies Symphony Hall, part of the San Francisco Symphony's Great Performers series.

The choice of musical offerings may have been a little ironic �" mostly Beethoven on concert one, and a whole lot of Brahms the following night �" as Gilbert has been criticized at home for not concentrating enough on the "core" repertoire. Judging by the results produced in the dry acoustics of DSH (still better than Avery Fisher Hall), the outgoing maestro from Gotham proved he has no lack of command or problem in producing a plush and punchy Philharmonic sound with the old standards. Packed houses and a full roster of SFS administrative brass couldn't wait to give a big welcome and multiple standing ovations to the visiting director and his impressive crew.

Enthusiastic listeners were treated to the powerful trademark sound of one of the world's most famous and honored orchestras. Playing full-throttle with magnificent intensity. the NYP is simply thrilling. Gilbert has been rightly praised for his innovative repertory at home, and for his support of living composers. He has been faulted for a lack of interpretive vision conducting works of the 19th century, and it seems he continues on that course. He lets the music speak for itself, without putting much personal stamp on it.

Considering how many times a regular concertgoer is likely to hear a Brahms or Beethoven symphony, I confess to craving more individual insight or podium personality from visiting conductors. It might not seem fair or even appropriate, but I still enjoy more solidly traditional performances better on disc than in person.

Beethoven's Egmont Overture, Opus 84, opened the concert last Friday night, with the sheer weight of the orchestra immediately apparent. A wonderful intensity in the strings still showed impressive sweetness and bloom, and the brass blared above them with startling accuracy and power. The NYP has a real bottom to its sound that anchors even the quietest moments with gravitas and aural uniformity. It makes us hear old chestnuts with fresh admiration, if not understanding.

The first evening continued with more sculpted and authoritative Beethoven. A shining performance of the composer's popular Seventh Symphony prompted the first of several standing ovations.

I was more taken by Gilbert's devotion of the second half to music by Sibelius. The great symphonist's Seventh may be no match to Beethoven's in audience appeal, but the taut and beautifully panoramic performance certainly satisfied my expectations. The night ended with more exciting Sibelius. Finlandia raised the roof, and an encore, the beloved Valse Triste, sent everyone home in a good mood.

The second program heavily featured Brahms, opening with a strong and moody performance of the Tragic Overture, Opus 81, and ending with a pleasingly burnished rendition of the much sunnier Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Opus 73.

Sandwiched in-between, Carter Brey, principal cellist of the NYP since 1996, presented Schumann's Cello Concerto in A minor, Opus 129. Brey's sound can stand in clear outline from the rich orchestral ensemble, and his tone is pure and transparent.

The program included an encore by Brahms, the Hungarian Dance No. 6. It was a fine way to say goodbye to the visiting orchestra and its departing director. Less victory lap than farewell tour, Gilbert's appearances reminded us of his obvious focus and commitment to musical excellence.