Photo by Mark Harrison © BBC Music Magazine.
In two years as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert has established himself as a force for modernism, expanding the appeal of the venerated orchestra through experimental programming and bold initiatives. This week's one-two punch of Bartók's Second Violin Concerto and Beethoven's Eroica Symphony may not be among his most innovative, but it made for one of the strongest concerts of the season.
The Bartók concerto led off the evening, featuring skilled Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili in the complex solo part. Bartók conceived an extended monologue for the instrument, interspersed with occasional dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. He incorporated microtonalities, Hungarian folk-songs and unearthly orchestrations to make an original statement for the violim and orchestra.
Ms. Batiashvili displayed formidable technique, bowing the long legato lines with a smooth action and then leading the listener up dizzying spiral staircases of scales. She doublestopped with speed and authority. As she raced along, the notes on paper sounded like a stream of consciousness, bubbling forth over the orchestra.
Sometimes, the violin would waltz like a frantic Gypsy. At others, it droned like a hurdy-gurdy at a street fair. The slow movement, with the atmospheric, almost impressionist use of low strings and triangle, contained some of the finest music-making of the evening. Throughout, the soloist maintained a complex interaction with Mr. Gilbert and his orchestra, and their rapport was exciting to watch and listen to.
Beethoven's Third Symphony represented a vast expansion of the form. Nearly twice as long as any symphony before it, the Eroica travels a wide range of emotions in its journey. Beethoven wasn't writing program music here, but the opening one-two combination of the questing first movement and the somber funeral march remains a potent experience.
The Philharmonic played this landmark symphony with robust energy, led by a dancing, exhorting Mr. Gilbert. He conducted from memory. Tempos were a little static in the first movement, and the funeral march positively crawled under its own weight. In the final pages before the coda, Mr. Gilbert let his orchestra loose in a paroxysm of minor-key grief that rent the heart.
Beethoven lightened up in the last two movements, although the manic energy of the dance movement seemed almost forced after the funeral march. Although the whirling scherzo was marred by some dodgy tones from the Philharmonic horns, the movement was played with sunny energy and determination to move on from the funeral procession.
The finale, with its pizzicato theme and variations remains one of the most exciting experiences one can have in a concert hall. As the final brass chords of Beethoven's grand second theme rang out, Mr. Gilbert brought this performance to an heroic end.