Medical issues have kept me from attending the New York Philharmonic as often as I would have liked, but the opening concert Wednesday night made clear that the bond between the orchestra and its "new" musical director, Alan Gilbert, is as close as any this difficult orchestra and a "boss" have had in a long time.
The playing was brilliant and the sense of responsiveness to Gilbert's baton thrilling.
In part the opening night program was standard -- Wagner and Strauss, but there was also a fresh note, another feather in Gilbert's cap. They played several pieces by Samuel Barber, beginning the concert with his dazzling overture to "The School for Scandal," composed when he was 21. Gilbert brought out all the vivid colors of the piece with expected sharpness and precision.
Few composers have come along in as bad a moment as possible. Like Aaron Copland and Morton Gould, Barber was creating a musical style that was distinctly American, but in the years after World War II suddenly the fashion became atonal music, cerebral work without any national coloring. (As Leonard Bernstein so eloquently put it, "Any s--t-head can write a 12-tone row. Only a gifted composer can write a melody.") For most of his career Barber experienced a condescension while the composers of music no one wants to listen to any more were highly praised. (To be fair, he was commissioned to write an opera for the opening of the New Met in 1966, but I attribute that to the taste of its then czar Rudolf Bing.)
The other Barber piece last night was "Andromache's Farewell," a dramatic monologue by the wife of Hector lamenting the savage death of her son. "Andromache" was also a commission by a Lincoln Center component, in this case the Philharmonic itself as it moved to its new, acoustically challenged home in 1962. Its musical director then was the aforementioned Leonard Bernstein, another man who could buck fashion.
It is a complex piece, sometimes abrasive, sometimes reflecting profound sadness. The orchestra conveyed all its riches, and soloist Deborah Voigt, in unusually radiant voice, made it deeply eloquent. Gilbert caught all the eroticism in the "Dance of the Seven Veils."
The program also included Voigt resplendent in "Dich Teure Halle" from Wagner's "Tannhauser" and the Prelude to that opera, which was as brilliant as it was Saturday night.
Here I must append a footnote. In discussing Wagner's sound the other day I mentioned he was the first to explore the potential of the modern orchestra. In fact the first was his sometime friend Hector Berlioz. Berlioz's originality stemmed in part from the fact that he is one of the few (if not only) major composers whose primary instrument was not the piano. You can reduce all major 19th century German music to a piano transcription and still understand the harmonies, progressions and so forth. For Berlioz, whose primary instrument was the guitar, the sonority of the instrument is as important as the melody. We'll go into this some other time.
For now the important news is that the orchestra and Gilbert are in extraordinary form as he begins his third season.