Alan Gilbert is stepping down, at 50, as music director of the New York Philharmonic, leaving an elder statesman’s post without actually being an elder statesman. His final program at David Geffen Hall, “A Concert for Unity,” is a pitch for gray-haired, cultural ambassadorhood from a man who’s still quite young.
The conceit is multicultural. Combining a few Philharmonic musicians — including Mr. Gilbert on violin — with Yo-Yo Ma and members of his Silk Road Ensemble, the program’s first half on Thursday consisted of a piece by a Syrian composer and a suite inspired by traditional Spanish dances. Then, for Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, musicians from orchestras around the world were invited to join the band. (The concert on Saturday will include only the symphony.)
This was intended as a preview of an international, Gilbert-led Unity Orchestra that could, he writes in a program note, be “deployed as a diplomatic tool” by the United Nations. The all-hands-on-deck symbolism is sweet, though it’s long past time to stop saying, as Mr. Gilbert did in remarks on Thursday, that music makes the world a better place. (Any political persuasion can claim “Nessun dorma” as a theme song. Music doesn’t make the world better; people do.)
And the event was in keeping with the American tendency to look abroad for bridge-building opportunities, when there remains plenty of work to do at home. Before positioning itself as a leader in cross-cultural outreach, the Philharmonic might, for starters, seat a second African-American member.
It also might have sought more stimulating music for its brief jam session with the Silk Road Ensemble. Kinan Azmeh’s “Ibn Arabi Postlude” was six languid minutes; Edward Perez’s cloying Spanish arrangements, “Latina 6/8 Suite,” got a dose of aggressive merriment from Cristina Pato’s Galician bagpipes.
As for the Mahler symphony, its first movement was Mr. Gilbert at his best: tense and taut without exaggeration, its episodes unified — but not flattened — into an organic journey. But that journey didn’t continue: This ended up a healthy-minded, sincere, rather defanged Seventh. The mood was more candied than mysterious in the second-movement “night music,” its lilting cello section feeling genuinely nostalgic rather than tangily sardonic.
Mr. Gilbert emphasized gentleness wherever possible — and sometimes where you wouldn’t think it possible, as in the third-movement scherzo, a ghostly dance that was here neither ghostly nor dancey. So the serenading fourth movement wasn’t able to function as a respite, and the sudden blaze of the finale was anticlimactic: grounded and surprisingly intimate, but not exhilarating.
The playing throughout was shining, powerful and agile — Mr. Gilbert has been a responsible steward of the orchestra’s sound — but there was an all-too-characteristic lack of vividness, of character, of accruing drama. For me, the most memorable aspects of his tenure have been the initiatives and out-of-the-box events, the spectacles and feats of organizing, rather than the actual music-making.
For eight years, Mr. Gilbert has worked diligently and creatively to puncture the mystique that still surrounds symphony orchestras and their conductors. Under him, the Philharmonic felt more experimental and ad hoc, as if a staid Victorian mansion had been kitted out with funky furniture.
The thing about furniture, though, is that it’s easily removed. While the orchestra will now have as its chief executive Deborah Borda, a progressive visionary, its next music director, Jaap van Zweden, has cultivated the old-school fearsome-maestro persona that Mr. Gilbert wisely eschewed.
If he rejected that persona, though, which one did he embrace? When I look back on the Philharmonic’s Alan Gilbert era, I think I’ll remember a passing few seconds from Thursday’s concert.
It wasn’t a dramatic moment. There wasn’t even music playing. It came between the two short works in the first half. Mr. Gilbert and other musicians had stayed onstage while chairs and music stands were rearranged and latecomers seated.
Without thousands of eyes focused on him, Mr. Gilbert held his violin casually. He chatted with Cynthia Phelps, the Philharmonic’s principal violist. He looked over his music. He tuned his instrument.
He seemed not like a man holding one of the major — not to say mythical — positions of its kind in the world, but like just another working musician, surrounded by colleagues, playing a gig.
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