The syntagm “standard repertoire” has acquired a pejorative connotation. It evokes concert halls filled with nostalgic donors ready to listen for the hundredth time to something they know by heart. In consequence, there has been a backlash, especially among younger concertgoers. The need for “discoveries”, new and old, has pushed aside concerns about the quality of programming. Forgetting that a good number of “standard repertoire” musical compositions were deeply revolutionary at their time, many listeners consider that attending performances where warhorses are overplayed is unchallenging, “uncool”, a sign of classical music’s ossification. Righteously, they point out that interpreters put these musical pieces into a new light, revealing surprising details and connections, only on the rarest of circumstances.

Alan Gilbert © Chris Lee
Alan Gilbert
© Chris Lee

The two incontestable masterpieces – Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto and Brahms’ Third Symphony – that were paired in the most recent New York Philharmonic’s subscription series, are certainly falling into the “standard repertoire” category. Unfortunately, at least at the performance I attended, the interpretations put forward were nothing more than conventional ones.

Stephen Hough, the British pianist lauded for his introspective rather than purely virtuosic approaches to music making, was the soloist in Beethoven's “Emperor”. The initial arpeggios sounded a little muddled but listeners were quickly able to appreciate Hough’s keen sense of phrasing and his wonderful, velvety touch. The outer sections would have benefited from a harsher Sturm und Drang approach making their contrast with the Apollonian Adagio un poco mosso more effective. The elusiveness and fragility typical of chamber music was constantly present in this rendering, but the heroic character of this score was less so. The dialogue between soloist and orchestra justly avoided a battle-like approach. Occasionally though, it felt unnaturally aloof.

Hans Richter, who conducted the première of Brahms’ Symphony no. 3 in F major, proclaimed it to be the composer’s “Eroica”. One can interpret this through the “F-A flat-F” (“Frei aber Froh”/ “Free but Happy”) motto that appears at the beginning of the score and resurfaces boldly, or camouflaged, many times again as a statement of independence. The fifty-year-old composer had finally succeeded to emerge from Beethoven’s long shadow. A successful rendition of the Third has to, first and foremost, convey a sense of romantic exuberance tempered by melancholy, of impetus married to fluency. The version offered by the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert’s baton was rather flat and perfunctory. One can always blame the faulty acoustics of the David Geffen Hall but…

Since the roster was supplemented by several young musicians from the Santa Barbara’s Music Academy of the West, here as part of a multi-year training program, one would have expected a little more enthusiasm. There were definitely beautiful moments but they were rare. The major-minor ambiguity had the proper contours in the second movement’s dialogue between chords and woodwinds. In the intensely lyrical Poco allegretto, principal horn Philip Meyers played the recapitulation of the main theme with such smoothness that you could think you are hearing the cellos announcing it for the first time!

Gilbert is a modest, serious and knowledgeable conductor. As Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, he did more for contemporary music than any of his recent predecessors. It’s true though that some of the performances he led, including this one, were somehow lackluster. In the last couple of months of his tenure, he needs to do more, using the current political vocabulary, to “protect his legacy”.