The visit of Music Director Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic to Copley Symphony Hall Wednesday (May 4) made a compelling case both for the music of Jean Sibelius and for the artistic level of the orchestra under Gilbert’s leadership. Slated to leave the Philharmonic next year, the 49-year-old maestro has led this mercurial ensemble since 2009.
From this performance it is clear that Gilbert’s well-disciplined crew responds with alacrity to his athletic direction with polished, evenly balanced ensembles throughout the orchestra. Some sections sound extraordinarily well—the opulent horns, the deeply resonant low brass, and the highly refined woodwinds. Gilbert’s string sections display a leaner sonority than, say, the more vibrant Chicago Symphony strings or the resonant Los Angeles Philharmonic strings. But they execute the maestro’s bidding with enviable precision.
Gilbert neatly divided his program: Beethoven on the first half, Sibelius on the second. In Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Gilbert favored buoyant phrases and swift tempos that displayed the laudable technical polish of his players. Conducting from memory, his expansive arm movements and busy podium footwork signaled his concern for the proper placement of the symphony’s minutest detail.
Optimistic, hopeful Beethoven, but not particularly profound—I did not rush up the aisle at intermission in hopes of purchasing Gilbert’s recorded version of the Seventh Symphony. This approach to the Egmont Overture, Gilbert’s program opener, proved more successful, however. In this shorter work, Gilbert’s surface energy cultivated the work’s innate dramatic anticipation, so that when Beethoven arrives at the overture’s bravura, brassy finale, the audience feels the power of that tremendous release.
The Sibelius Seventh Symphony belongs to a different world. A sprawling, single-movement symphony with little of the noble architecture that orders Beethoven’s Seventh. Sibelius’ symphony is more like Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” moving from one contrasting scene to another, except that Sibelius’ exhibition is imaginary and without pictorial description.
From the great rising C Major scale that opens the Seventh, Gilbert stressed the strength and confidence of Sibelius’ last symphonic essay, gliding into its majestic chorale-like moments and allowing the Philharmonic’s stentorian brass to elucidate these broad, wordless paeans to human destiny with heroic majesty. Sibelius wrote the Seventh in 1924, a time when his couterparts in Vienna were abandonning tonality and even atonality in search of a new path for western music. Yet Sibelius had something new to say using something as basic C major tonality: a compelling work that measures up to Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone Variations for Orchestra from 1926.
“Finlandia,” a much earlier Sibelius work concluded the program with its predictable nobility and fervor. Written to inspire Finns who were smarting under the restrictions of Russian rule at the turn of the 20th century, “Finlandia” still communicates the will to triumph over oppression. Gilbert and the Philharmonic gave ithe work all of the rousing drive and sonic allure it demands.
For an encore, Gilbert chose a Sibelius work of smaller scale, the “Valse Triste,” which Gilbert and the orchestra played with a touching, wistful grace.