Sibelius' Valse triste was the totally appropriate encore performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra following the prolonged, vociferous standing ovation they received from an overwhelmed audience of concert goers in San Francisco, all of whom were very sad to see this spectacular display of orchestral technique, musicality and ensemble come to an end.

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

It may seem strange to start a review with the end of the concert, but there was so much energy, drama, emotional line and mental attention to detail expended on the part of the players and their Music Director, Alan Gilbert, throughout the intense and technically demanding program, it seemed doubly impressive that they could all continue such levels of concentrated energy required to create the whispered pain of the Valse, as an encore – yet it was the most emotive and breathtaking performance of that universally cherished piece that I had ever heard. Their performance of the Valse, like everything else on this popular program, was one of tremendous dynamic range, from almost inaudible but exquisitely beautiful pianissimos in the strings to roof-raising fortissimo, most always perfectly balanced across the most impressive brass and woodwinds, the expressive double bass section, and the stellar percussionists. 

What we now call the Sibelius Seventh Symphony (which opened the second half) started out life as an orchestral “Fantasia”, and Maestro Gilbert’s shaping of the work seemed to echo the well-written program notes, which describe a musical concept or theme that takes on a personal life and character of its own, going on a journey with many adventures (almost like a video game), where the composer, conductor, orchestra and audience can only follow along and let it develop as it wishes… In this superbly structured and long-lined performance, one could hear how compositionally advanced Sibelius was for his time.

Maestro Gilbert seemed anxious to dive into the concluding work of the second half, Finlandia. There was nothing commonplace about the NY Phil’s performance and interpretation. Taken at a tempo much brisker than one normally hears, the main theme, when introduced in the woodwinds, sounded like a windswept leaf, being blown in different directions by each phrase shape. Only when the strings repeated the melody did the tempo relax a bit, to emphasize a sung, chorale-like aspect with breaths and pauses for the singers’ declamation. Gilbert conducted with his hands and little details in various sections of the orchestra were shaped with great interest, thus becoming much more audible than usual, like the lower strings (particularly the basses) rumbling menacingly rather than being an incoherent growl down in the bowels of the orchestra. Cymbals didn’t just crash (incredibly loudly!), they danced with the wave and pulse of the work. And the timpanist! – not enough can be said about his technique, tone or speed, both in this work and in the all-Beethoven first half of the program.

Continuing to work backwards up through the concert, a brief analysis of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony (juxtaposed with the Sibelius' Seventh), which again highlighted the dance-like timpani playing and the razor-sharp orchestral ensemble, both of these aspects even more impressive due to the (seemingly) record-breaking but confident speed with which Alan Gilbert conducted all four movements. It can be a risky business bringing such a well-known piece on tour, but this was truly a unique and confident interpretation which led to a huge standing ovation from much of the audience and bemused disagreement from others. It was a very direct, “classical era” interpretation, in that even the ever-favorite second movement had a relentless direction and drive to it, refusing to wallow in any harmonic changes or pulsing emotion. One became ever more aware of Beethoven’s great ability for over-arching conception, and also more aware of the orchestra’s dazzling ensemble and technical skills.

That impression was established with the very first notes of the program: the dramatic opening of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture was amazing in its intensity, sound level (just right for Beethoven, and allowing room for the Sibelius later to explode), and an underlying drive feeding across the rests, “drawing the curtains” open on this drama about to unfold. Little did we expect the aural drama and sweeping sounds that would envelop us in orchestral perfection over the next 90 minutes. Looking up from floor-level seats to rows of balconies and a few thousand people encircling the stage, it was very moving to realize that Beethoven was still speaking to new generations, with a power and universal humanity that was palpable in Davies Hall.