Mahler 2 and the New York Philharmonic

September 28 2011

I’ve been working in New York for 14 months now, and I have amazingly managed to dodge the New York Philharmonic during this time. I’ve seen the Met a couple times, countless chamber music performances, and even the Ballet, but not the Philharmonic until last night.

It turns out this may have been the perfect time to see them as they were playing Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”, a program they originally played as part of the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Conductor Alan Gilbert was quite active on stage


My reactions to this orchestra are that overall it’s not as strong as the CSO, and they particularly have trouble following Alan Gilbert at times. The string sound is very good and reminded me of the Karajan-era Berliner strings. It was a polished and “professional” sound. However, I didn’t hear the same warmth and feeling that the CSO plays with. This is especially true of the cellos - I continue to think the CSO cello section is unmatched. The brass are a slightly different story. It was hard to judge the quality here because there were always so many brass players playing at the same time (Mahler tends to have that effect). I think the sound was very good and definitely very loud.

The curious thing is that, at times, they either had trouble following Gilbert or were unwilling to follow Gilbert. This is especially true when Gilbert looked to change tempos or when they were entering a change in mood coming from Mahler. In addition, there was some confusion at times when various parts were played off-stage - the orchestra generally had trouble staying in sync during these parts.

Gilbert himself didn’t exactly shine. He took wildly schizophrenic tempo swings and generally played the slow sections slower and the fast sections faster. I think this is unnecessary with Mahler - his music is already dramatic enough without taking further liberties with the tempos. This was particularly agonizing at the beginning of the second movement. Gilbert would over-emphasize the pickup note and slow down tempo, only to accelerate once the downbeat was reached. I had always interpreted this second movement (at least the first theme) as a simple one, meant to be a break from the marching first movement and the bitterly sarcastic third movement.

When the piece first started, I noticed that Gilbert was a lot more active with his movements and gestures on stage. I quickly realized that this was only because of my recent context with CSO conductors. Haitink and Muti don’t exactly move much on the podium. In general, I though Gilbert’s gestures were appropriate for the piece.

However, all of these slight criticisms do not obscure the fact that the star of the show is Mahler. The 2nd symphony is one of the few symphonies to end in triumph, and the NYP do a great job at the climax. The pure level of noise as well as the energy in the hall was really an experience. I noticed that this symphony might be one of the few that have multiple “chill” moments, those times when you get goosebumps and a chill throughout your body.

I very much enjoyed my first NYP concert. I worry about the relationship between orchestra and conductor - very rarely do I hear disagreements in tempo at the CSO. However, I am looking forward to my next concert, whenever I get a chance to come back to New York.


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