There was a time, perhaps not too long ago, when music lovers in Los Angeles would look towards New York and its august Philharmonic Orchestra with a mixture of respect and envy. The roster of its past music directors—among them Bernstein, Mitropoulos, Toscanini, Mengelberg, and Mahler—was, alone, enough to inspire jaw-gaping awe. It was hard not to look to one’s East Coast neighbors without thinking the grass was greener there. Things have changed since then and the grass, while different, may not necessarily be greener in Manhattan.

Alan Gilbert © Chris Lee
Alan Gilbert
© Chris Lee

Making their first appearance in Disney Hall—part of their first tour of the United States under its current music director—the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert were received by its audience with the kind of rapturous ovation normally reserved in these parts for rock stars and the Lakers (or these days, the Clippers). Yet, despite that, what one actually heard from the stage left a very mixed impression.

Not that the problem is with the orchestra itself. One can safely say that the New York Philharmonic has never been so beautiful an instrument as it is today. Long gone is the scrappy ensemble that Virgil Thompson once chided for its “cast-iron string tone.” A refined, burnished tone one can only describe as “Old World” glows from this orchestra. So what was the problem?

The program, first performed in New York, opened with Dvořák’s Carnival Overture: and this piece proved to be very instructive. Memories of Neeme Järvi’s roof-raising treatment of the work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic back in March were still fresh in the ears. His ability to scrub textures clean, conjure an array of tone colors, and impart an infectious rhythmic grip on the music that didn’t let go of the listener until its coda were sorely missed in Gilbert’s altogether more staid account. Phrasing that was far too legato and a flatfooted sense of pacing considerably dampened the cheer of Dvořák’s Bohemian revelers.

Similar problems plagued the Tchaikovsky Symphony no. 4 that closed the program. Throughout one was impressed by the beauty of the orchestra’s sound, yet dismayed by the utter lack of dramatic power. The symphony’s opening fanfare seemed to announce just another ho-hum day, instead of setting the scene for one of Tchaikovsky’s most passionate symphonic utterances. It was only in the work’s very closing bars that Gilbert finally scraped some sparks. But by then it was too little, too late.

Credit should be given for Gilbert’s championing of modern music, which have livened up the New York Philharmonic’s concerts. Their concert with Stockhausen’s Gruppen set for next month has been attracting much notice. Would that they had tried that work out here. Instead, Los Angeles was treated to the music of Magnus Lindberg—no stranger here, as he was a close musical colleague of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Lindberg’s Piano Concerto No. 2, played with stunning virtuosity by Yefim Bronfman, was a surprisingly timid statement from this often bold and kinetically explosive composer. The composer noted in the work’s program notes that he found inspiration for his concerto in Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Inspiration is one thing. But Lindberg’s concerto—with its undigested chunks from the Ravel wanly strung together—disappointed with the naked derivativeness of its gestures, garnished as they were with a dash of Lutosławski for good measure.

Only in the orchestra’s encore—the Corsair Overture by Berlioz—did Gilbert finally come alive with the kind of energy missing earlier in the concert. Deftly shaped and blazing away with all the propulsion of a rocket streaking across the sky, it was a tour-de-force or orchestral execution. Elegance, tonal beauty, and rhythmic verve: it was everything one could have hoped to hear in this music.

Gilbert, going into his third year in New York, seems finally to be settling into his groove, if the orchestra’s radio broadcasts are any indication. But he can be maddeningly uneven, as he was in this concert. Still, at his relatively young age Gilbert has plenty of time to hone his tremendous talent. He may become a podium great yet.