In September 2009, Alan Gilbert became Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, the first native New Yorker to hold the post.At 42, he is also the youngest holder of the post since Leonard Bernstein took up the reins in 1958.This concert, the first of two at the Barbican, rounded off a short European tour by the new conductor/orchestra partnership.
Another new association for the NYP is Magnus Lindberg’s appointment as composer-in-residence. His first work for the orchestra, EXPO, was premiered by Gilbert at his inaugural concert in September and formed a curtain raiser for this Barbican visit. EXPO is a busy and propulsive work, its ten minute span contrasting passages of scurrying strings, slow moving brass chorales, growling climaxes and optimistic fanfares. Melodic warmth and inventiveness, evoking American composers such as Howard Hanson and Roy Harris were welcome features of the score, although the structure behind the multiplicity of activity was not immediately apparent.
Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, written when the composer was still a student at the St Petersburg Conservatory, is one of the most technically demanding scores in the repertoire. The work’s complexities were not a problem for Yefim Bronfman, who provided an interpretation which married lyricism, fantasy and tragic grandeur. His assault on the piano during the first movement coda was sufficiently physical to make one fear for the instrument’s structural integrity. Gilbert led an incisive accompaniment, the malevolent and quirky aspects of the Intermezzo particularly well projected.
For the final work, Sibelius’s Second Symphony, Gilbert eschewed the use of a score and conducted entirely from memory. The quality of the orchestra’s strings was much in evidence throughout the performance, an attractive tonal warmth combined with expressive power, resulting in an account of the first movement that was lyrical and ardent. However, the second movement brought doubts. The brass-led climaxes lacked profundity, the woodwind sounded insufficiently Sibelian, and the movement as a whole lacked tension. Antiphonal violins were a benefit in the Scherzo, but the final movement lacked impetus and fire, and even the tremendous coda failed to raise the emotional temperature.
The applause for the visiting musicians was sufficiently warm for them to provide two encores, the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Sibelius’s Valse triste. The Tchaikovsky was a little lacking in energy, the Sibelius refined and elegant.