|Alan Gilbert conducting Juilliard Orchestra (photo by Chris Lee)
Maestro Alan Gilbert has been music director of the New York Philharmonic for the past six years and also serves as director of conducting and orchestral studies at The Juilliard School. If we had a private moment with him we would love to ask him whether the musicians of the former could deliver a better performance than the Juilliard Orchestra did last night. We doubt it. We are not sure what percentage of the musicians are graduating but it’s certain that this particular group will never play together again and this may have been responsible for the intensity and excitement of their performance.
Mr. Gilbert is an uncommonly lively conductor, using not just his hands, not just his upper body, but his entire body, making the performance a dance-like event. We got The Full Monty! This total involvement served to bring out the best in his young musicians and we think any orchestra in the world would be fortunate to have a Juilliard graduate as a member.
The program was well chosen—Richard Strauss’ 1888 tone poem Don Juan and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony which premiered in 1813. Both works delight our 19th c. ears and we found ourselves wondering why contemporary symphonic music is so unlistenable. Until a composer comes along who can engage us we will just be obliged to stick to the masters. And what masters they were!
Composers of lieder found poetry that they liked and supported it, amplified it and explored it through the means of voice and piano, with another instrument occasionally thrown into the mix. The text seems to float on the surface of the music. Composers of symphonic tone poems also used literary devices but more as inspiration. Strauss was inspired by the Nikolaus Lenau version of the Don Juan tale in which the hero is more of a romantic dreamer than an entitled rogue. He supposedly was searching for his romantic ideal—a woman who embodied all women, an überfrau, if you will.
Perhaps we were not able to hear all this in the work but what we did hear was thrilling—the rousing opening theme followed by a more lyric one introduced by the compelling concertmaster Simon Michal. There was a frisky theme and a somber one, with brass fanfares interrupting periodically. The ending did suggest the death of the Don, announced by strings and kettle drum. One could certainly hear the fading heartbeat.
In the Beethoven, the first movement was introduced by rising scale passages and octave skips. The themes were clearly laid out in classical fashion and the carefully worked out development section revealed the master’s genius. When he dips into the minor key it is wrenching. We have heard so-called musical experts claim that Beethoven was not a good melodist but relied solely on rhythm. We disagree. The melodies of this work are memorable and hummable. The part with which we do agree is that Beethoven used rhythm most effectively with phrases crisply articulated.
The second movement appeared to belong to the strings with the lower strings introducing a somber theme which was picked up and expanded by the violins. The theme was developed with endless inventiveness and intricacy. Not one note or phrase of this was missed by Maestro Gilbert and the Juilliard Orchestra. As we heard in the development section of the first movement, there were compelling contributions from the winds.
The energetic third movement leaned heavily on rhythm as the theme bounced around from one section of the orchestra to the other. The excitement was palpable. The final movement gave conductor and musicians alike a real workout. The entire symphony pulses with life and enjoys a unity that many symphonies do not.
The program notes indicate that Beethoven contributed this work to a concert to benefit troops wounded in the Battle of Hanau, fought to prevent Napoleon’s retreat back to France after his ill-advised land grabs. Actually, the Austro-Bavarian corps lost the battle which is immortalized in Horace Vernet’s painting held at the National Gallery of London. War is an ill wind that blows some good when it inspires art and music.
© meche kroop