[Note: This post has been updated (3) as of 7:59 PM Eastern on 18 Sep. See below.]
We tried listening to the season's opening New York Philharmonic concert tonight on PBS with Alan Gilbert on the podium for the first time as the orchestra's Music Director, but the audio of the PBS telecast (and that of the simulcast by radio station WQXR as well) was so bloody dreadful that we really can't be sure just what it was we heard. We were, however, able to discern that Renée Fleming is a first-rate musician (she sang near-perfectly, as far as we could tell, the nine difficult songs that constitute Olivier Messiaen's song cycle, Poèmes pour Mi), and that she has perhaps the most gorgeous soprano voice on the planet. The concert opened with EXPO (the all-caps is the composer's), a new work commissioned by the NYP for this opening concert from the NYP's Composer-in-Residence, Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg; a mercifully short (some nine minutes or so), noisy, overwrought, big-hair Romantic work that Lindberg wrote as "a tribute to [Alan Gilbert] and the Orchestra at a historic moment." Berlioz's (literally) fantastic Symphonie fantastique closed the concert in a technically competent but otherwise largely pedestrian reading of the score by Gilbert and the band, and the intermission feature — short "interviews" by concert host Alec Baldwin (yes, that Alec Baldwin) with Fleming and Gilbert — was minimally embarrassing.
Our overall impression? Mr. Gilbert (whose work we've here had experience of for the first time) will have to do much better in future if he wants to maintain the NYP's well-earned reputation as one of the world's most accomplished symphony orchestras, and provide some meaningful on-podium evidence that he's truly worthy of his new position.
Update (5:33 PM Eastern on 17 Sep): Here are three MSM reviews of this concert, each written by a classical music critic who was actually there: Anne Midgette (The Washington Post), Mark Swed (Los Angeles Times), and Anthony Tommasini (The New York Times).
Update 2 (10:29 PM Eastern on 17 Sep): In response to our remark above that Alan Gilbert and the NYP gave a "technically competent but otherwise largely pedestrian reading of the score" of the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique at last night's season-opening concert, a musically knowledgeable member of the Classical Music & Opera Forums (of which online forum we're also a member) wrote: "In the Berlioz, his [Gilbert's] tempi were acceptable, but that's not a hard piece to get right," to which we responded, "If the Symphonie fantastique is 'not a hard piece to get right,' how come no one has been able to get it right since [Charles] Munch's superb '50s RCA recording with the BSO [Boston Symphony Orchestra]?"
That response by us raised the eyebrows of another musically knowledgeable forum member (and perhaps raised yours as well) who, after confessing he'd never heard the Munch recording, put forward recordings of the work by Solti, Abbado, and Barbirolli which readings of the work he felt were among the best he'd ever encountered, and so we felt constrained to explain just a wee bit further, and will repeat here what we said for those of you whose eyebrows may also have been raised by our immediately above response.
After declaring that those three first-rate conductors didn't get it right either, we went on to explain that there's a certain subtle, fluid, pervasive rhythmic tipsiness or off-balance-ness that goes beyond the notated tipsy, off-balance rhythms indicated in the score that's central to getting this piece right, and that the only reading of this work in our experience, both live and recorded, that captured that subtle, fluid, pervasive rhythmic tipsiness or off-balance-ness, and captured it to perfection throughout the work, is the Munch/BSO recording noted above.
That classic Munch/BSO RCA recording has never been out of print since its initial release in 1954, and for those of you who aren't familiar with it, it's this one:
We simply cannot praise this reading of the Symphonie fantastique too highly, and heartily recommend it to your attention.
Update 3 (7:59 PM Eastern on 18 Sep): Martin Bernheimer (The Financial Times), another MSM classical music critic who was actually at the concert, weighs in with his verdict.