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New York
Avery Fisher Hall
05/19/2004 -  
Aaron Copland: Songs
Gustav Mahler: from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Alban Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra
Charles Ives: General William Booth Enters Into Heaven; Symphony # 4

Nathan Gunn (baritone)
Dessoff Symphonic Choir
New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert (conductor)
Roberto Minczuk (second conductor)

It is quite fitting and proper for the New York Philharmonic to devote a considerable amount of their spring season to the music of Charles Ives, a composer whose life and works are inextricably linked to the ensemble. Ives lived for many years in New York and, before and after, in neighboring Connecticut. When a young insurance exec, the fellow practically roomed at Carnegie Hall in the evenings, hearing many performances led by Anton Seidl and then Gustav Mahler. Mahler even seriously considered giving the world premiere performance of the Symphony # 3 of the then unknown Ives, taking its score aboard ship on what would prove to be his final trip home to Vienna. Further, Ives as a phenomenon was created out of whole cloth by Leonard Bernstein (“our Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln of music” the enthusiastic Lenny dubbed him), who indeed did give the premiere of the Second Symphony and launched the posthumous career (much more successful than the living, breathing one) of the Yankee genius with a groundbreaking LP release. Combining the music of Mahler and Alban Berg with that of Ives and Copland for this particular concert was an inspired stroke of programming, since the Phil of Mitropoulos and Bernstein spearheaded the great Mahler emergence, Bernstein was intimately involved with the art of Copland, and Mitropoulos introduced Berg to the larger public in his own landmark recording of Wozzeck (unfortunately Bernstein’s antagonism towards the second Viennese school ended this particular renaissance rather quickly).

For the orchestra itself, this was also an occasion for familial interconnection. Alan Gilbert, tonight’s conductor, is the son of Philharmonic violinist Yoko Takebe and recently retired violinist Michael Gilbert. Add to all of this the close mentorship of Mahler to Berg and one felt the palpability of a reunion in progress.

The concert was rather a rocky affair (not craggy, which would have been good for the performance of Ives). Mr. Gilbert did shine in his realization of the Berg, proving that he is the first leader since Boulez (and that was thirty years ago!) to understand the idiom of the Second Viennese School. This performance was remarkable for its discipline, even the most improbable combinations of timbre sounding like inspirations of genius, not mistakes in judgment (although it was disconcerting at the interval to talk with other critics who admit to little or no appreciation of this vitally important music). Some of the visceral excitement was absent, to be sure, but to render so much of the printed score so exactly was praiseworthy enough.

Elsewhere, however, it was business as usual. The accompaniment to the Mahler songs was, well, not very subtle. Missing was any sense of color or style, what we got instead was just big gobs of unfocused noise. The unfortunate baritone was completely overmatched in these emotive miniatures. Here’s an unsolicited piece of advice for Nathan Gunn: do not ever attempt to sing ”Praise from an Advanced Intellect” again. Not only was the voice meager and uninteresting, but there was a woeful and embarrassing lack of characterization, leaving the pathos, bathos and humor on some dusty shelf. Mr. Gunn also forgot to disengage the silencer and often he was mercifully inaudible.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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