John Adams is serving as the Berlin Philharmonic’s Composer in Residence for the current season. His relationship with the orchestra’s chief, Simon Rattle, goes back a long way, here two of his shorter works kicked off each half of a concert conducted by the outgoing music director of another famous Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert.

Alan Gilbert © Chris Lee | New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert
© Chris Lee | New York Philharmonic

Assessments of Gilbert’s time at the New York Philharmonic vary, but he’s generally credited with introducing programming that has been a lot more progressive than under his predecessors. This concert certainly showed him to be thoroughly persuasive in music of the 20th and 21st centuries – I was less convinced by the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony that took up the bulk of the second half.

There was no faulting him in the Adams, though. The orchestra proved itself to be an impeccably engineered, well-oiled unit in Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Gilbert’s precise, tightly controlled baton left no scope for veering off course, nor was he afraid to let the visceral thrill come through in some and ear-splitting whistle and clatter. It’s a tried and trusted opener, and is 30 years old now. It’s hard to imagine a more confident, chrome-plated performance.

There were the same virtues in the performance of Lollapalooza, written for Rattle’s 40th birthday and premiered by him in Birmingham. The title, in Adams’ words, "suggests something large, outlandish, oversized, not unduly refined." As such it’s a lolloping, deliberate and slightly relentless and pugilistic piece (the word might have its origins in a boxing term). It does its descriptive work well, but it’s hardly an endearing work.  

Gilbert’s precision and clarity of vision served him well in the first half’s main course, a terrific account of Bartók’s kaleidoscopic Second Violin Concerto. The conductor and orchestra, impeccably taut and disciplined, provided an ideal stage for soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann – a rich-toned and fearlessly virtuosic protagonist. 

That’s not to say that the orchestra wasn’t able to step forward into the limelight when necessary. The various solos in conversation with the violin in the Andante tranquillo – its opening bars played with moving delicacy by Zimmermann – were supremely elegant, and Gilbert whipped up several of the tuttis excitingly. The performers managed too to keep an impressive sense of coherence as the finale shifted through its episodes towards a thrilling close.

Gilbert’s discipline and the orchestra’s top-notch playing remained constants in the Tchaikovsky, but I couldn’t help wishing for a little bit of extra warmth and instinctive flexibility here. Some of the first movement occasionally seemed  a little perfunctory and unloving, even if Gilbert built the development section’s climax impressively.

I felt similarly about some parts of the Andantino, but the main theme’s hushed return in the violins, the woodwind weaving their delicate garlands around it, was entrancing. The Scherzo, too, was outstanding in its pinpoint accuracy and buoyant playfulness, and the enjoyment continued through wind band’s central knees-up.

In the finale, however, things once again felt a little stiff and unrelenting, and I wished Gilbert had done a little more to moderate the brass’s forthright interjections. There was more than a hint of getting back into our fast machine for the final minutes. Not necessarily what you want in Tchaikovsky, but there was no denying it was an exciting ride.