A couple weeks ago I did something I haven't done in a while: I watched a live classical music concert on TV. The occasion was the PBS Live from Lincoln Center's broadcast of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra's season opener, which marked the début of its new Music Director, 42-year-old Alan Gilbert. I'd even made a mental note of the broadcast primarily because I saw that it would include Renee Fleming singing songs not by Schubert, or Strauss, or Faure, all likely opening-night and maestro-début and audience friendly choices, but...Olivier Messiaen.
I almost didn't believe my eyes or ears when I heard and saw this after an episode of The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, but then Gilbert, the son of two NY Philharmonic musicians, has from his earliest appearances with the orchestra shown an adventurousness that marks a change from the musty perspectives of his immediate predecessors, both consummate musicians, Kurt Masur and placeholder Lorin Maazel. Gilbert not only chose Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi (1934), a serious of deeply religious, dramatic connubial songs written by the composer for his first wife, whose nickname was Mi, but also opened with a newly commissioned composition, EXPO, a continuously developing orchestral piece in a tonal idiom by the Philharmonic's composer in residence, Magnus Lindberg, and, after a break, concluded with...not Mozart, not Beethoven, not Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, or Schumann, but...Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique.
The Lindberg piece, with its echoes of Sibelius and Americana riffs, was pleasant enough to listen to, and Gilbert and the orchestra played it with assurance and verve, as if they were enjoying themselves. This was also the first time in over 45 years that the Philharmonic had included a newly commissioned piece on its opening night program. I'm sorry but that's pretty pathetic, so even more props go to Gilbert. But the Messaien riveted me. Not only did Fleming convey the otherwordliness of the nine song's scores, capturing both their highest and lowest registers and the churning colors between, but Gilbert pushed the orchestra to fully evoke all of Messaien's shadings without ever overshadowing the singer. Perhaps the most striking moment came when Fleming sang the grim "Éprouvante," a wrenching vision of hell that the music did not stint in reflecting. It was also exhilarating to hear work by Messaien, a highly regarded canonical composer whose music nevertheless remains on the other side of the symphonic mainstream, on TV, in prime time. This bodes well, I hope, for future NYPO and other orchestral concert broadcasts, though sometimes tells me they'll still be dominated by the late baroque-to-late Romantic German standards.
As Fleming sang, I intermittently wondered what subscribers and critics thought of Gilbert's choices. As a sign of a new vision, they left no doubt. To people used to a mostly late baroque-to-late Romantic German repertoire with a few outliers (19th century French and Russian, early 20th century European late-Romantic and tonal modernist, a few American composers, and commissioned pieces, never to be played again), was probably upsetting. To end with Berlioz's vast, forward-looking 1830 symphony must have felt like a shockwave. Gilbert and the orchestra showed that they knew the score and in most of its sections, went below the surface to portray the richness of the moods Berlioz was aiming for. I'm no expert on Berlioz's work nor an authority on how other orchestras have played it, but I could hear both Gilbert's and the players' skill and precision, but also passion. It was never mechanical, as Maazel's performances often were.
Anthony Tommasini raved about Gilbert in his New York Times review of the concert the following day. He praised the Lindberg for not writing a "gnarly, intimidating modern piece"--Mr. Tommasini, it's 2009, and there are so many contemporary composers who do not write "intimidating modern" or "post-modern" or "post-post-modern" or whatever pieces that also are not treacly, neo-Romantic, ersatz movie music outtakes--and rained down kudos for Gilbert's choice of the Messiaen and Berlioz, though he was less fulsome when he described Gilbert's conducting of the latter work, saying that some listeners probably liked to hear it conducted with more of a"sumptuous feeling for color or more fantastical freedom" than on display in this concert. He nevertheless lauded Gilbert's assured and effective conducting, which not only brought the symphony to life but worked well with the two prior pieces, both in French idioms, broadly construed. The article's comment section, however, reflected more displeasure than happiness: lots of complaints not about Gilbert's music-making, which seems unimpeachable, but about his program choices.
I've been wondering about this as I've followed Greg Sandow's blog on classical music for several years. Sandow is a composer and professor at Juillard, and is writing a book about the present state of the US classical music world. One persistent element in his blog commenters' responses is a denial that the US classical music world is any trouble; another is that its audience is aging; a third is that the standard repertoire is just fine. Keeping these frequent threads in mind, I wondered to myself how much outrage there would have been had Gilbert gone farther, and in addition to the Lindberg, programmed all new music to launch his tenure. What if instead of Messiaen (whose career spanned the early to late 20th century) and the 19th century Berlioz, he had played two contemporary, living American composers, like John Corigliano and Ellen Taaffe Zwillich? Or two contemporary non-US composers, like Toru Takemitsu and Thomas Adès? Or two 20th century American composers who weren't exactly mainstream any more, like Roy Harris and William Schuman? Or truly avant-garde 20th century, post-Second Viennese school American composers, like Morton Feldman, Terry Riley, and John Cage? Or a composition in a jazz or rock-inflected idiom by the likes of Elvis Costello, or Wynton Marsalis? Would people have walked out of and lustily booed the concert as occurred at the Metropolitan Opera's premiere last week of the warhorse Tosca, based on Luc Bondy's new staging and direction?
Perhaps a better question is, would it ever happen, even under someone as open to the new as Gilbert? (When the extraordinary conductor James Levine, who heads the Met Opera's orchestra, took over the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which long been moribund under his predecessor, he jumpstarted its formerly progressive repertoire under Fritz Reiner by performing a slew of "difficult" 20th century works. I don't think, however, that he touched the likes of Daugherty, say, or Todd Machover, or Tania León.) It remains to be seen. I should note that Gilbert's second concert as Musical Director was conducting Mahler's Third Symphony, about as standard as things can get. This week he conducted Brahms's Violin Concerto, another standard piece, but paired it with Arnold Schoenberg's less frequently heard Pelleas und Melisande, which Tommasini described in his Friday review, typically, as "formidable" and "demanding," despite it's having been superseded by far more formidable and demanding Schoenberg scores (Chamber Symphony? Fantasie? Violin Concerto?), as well as innumerable more complicated soundworlds including many in rock, jazz, ambient, etc. I take the slotting in of even a fairly old-style (for) Schoenberg piece as a good sign, though. And he spoke to the audience about it! Looking through the upcoming concerts--and Gilbert will be taking the Philharmonic on the road to Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Singapore for a chunk of October--through December, it appears as though there will be lots of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, unsurprisingly, but throughout the 2009-2010 season Gilbert has slated a range of post-Romantic fare into the main concerts, including performances of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre (semi-staged), Ives's Second Symphony, Anton von Zemlinsky's Lyric Suite, and, as part of the end of 2009 concerts, Webern's Symphony. Additionally, such very up-to-date works as Christopher Rouse's new commission, Zhizn ("life" in Russian), H.K. Gruber's Aerea, and pieces by Nico Muhly, Matthias Pintscher, Lindberg, and others, will be in both the main and Contact: The New Music series concerts.
To me, this programming in Gilbert's first year is a clear sign that the NYPO is moving into both the present and future, much as Baltimore's symphony has done under Marin Alsop, and Los Angeles's will under Gustavo Dudamel. Since I spend a chunk of each year in Chicago, I'm curious to know which directions new Musical Director Riccardo Muti will take the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the five years of his contract. He is known as a strong conductor of Giuseppi Verdi, late baroque and early Romantic music, and of the standard repertoire, in a lean, recording-friendly idiom, and not so much of anything that new. At least since Mahler's time.
(I am skipping the Lyric Opera of Chicago's offerings this year; they aren't staging a single opera written since 1921--Leos Janacek's Kát'a Kabanová--while the Metropolitan Opera's tiny steps outside its narrow conventional doors are Alban Berg's Lulu, Dmitri Shostakovich's The Nose, and Janacek's From the House of the Dead. The unparalleled season Gérard Mortier had planned for the New York City Opera is now nothing but a phantom, like that opera company itself.)
The Saint Louis Cardinals are now officially in the playoffs, after defeating the Colorado Rockies 6-3 last night. They joined the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have also made the playoffs and currently have the best record in the NL. In the AL, the Yankees are now in the playoffs, having defeated their arch-nemeses, the Boston Red Sox tonight at the new Yankee Stadium 4-2. The Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim both seem bound for the playoffs with dwindling magic numbers and the Red Sox are well ahead in the AL Wild Card Race, but the AL Central-leading Detroit Tigers are hanging on for all their lives, and the NL Wild Card race is increasingly a toss up, as Atlanta surges and Colorado falters. I'm just glad the Cardinals and Yankees are in. Now they have to keep winning.
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 27: Mark Sanchez #6 of The New York Jets runs upfield after catching a pass against The Tennessee Titans during their game on September 27, 2009 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
As of tonight, the New York Jets are 3-0; rookie QB Mark Sanchez's 3 straight wins are a league first, and the defense allowed more than 10 points for the first time this season in today's 24-17 victory over the Tennessee Titans. The Saint Louis Rams, however, are 0-3 after another uninspired, sloppy loss, this time to the Green Bay Packers. With the Detroit Lions' victory over the Washington Snyders, the Rams have the longest losing streak, at 13 games dating back to last season. They look awful enough to make it 29 if they maintain this abysmal level of play. But they're in good--or bad--company so far: Miami, Cleveland, Kansas City, Tennessee, and Tampa Bay have also lost 3 games without a win and Carolina has 2 losses without having won one. Which of this sorry group will turn things around first? I say Tennessee or Tampa Bay, but don't hold me to that.