Category Archives: Juilliard Orchestra

The Sublime (Briefly Interrupted By the Ridiculous): the Juilliard Orchestra and Alan Gilbert

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that while in New York on sabbatical, I most often attend new-music or alternative-venue/presentation concerts. I’m developing a course on entrepreneurial skills and where classical music may be headed.  I already know how traditional concerts work; I’m looking to see what new things people are doing.  So I haven’t been going to many big orchestra concerts, or mainstream chamber music performances, etc.

But I got an email from Alan Gilbert‘s publicist asking if I’d like to review last Friday’s Juilliard Orchestra concert (April 15)  in which he conducted the Mahler Ninth Symphony.  Well, when people invite me, I like to go.  So I did. And it’s always fun when someone has heard about my blogging and I did feel a bit flattered, I guess, to get invited by a big-shot publicist. I know another publicist who’s a friend of mine put Gilbert’s publicist up to it, but it was still fun to get the email.

I also knew it would be something that my NY sister-by-choice, Katherine, would like to go to.  She doesn’t care for what my publicist friend calls “squeak-fart music,” which describes a lot of what I go to, but she loves Mahler. There was no hesitation in her acceptance of my invitation.

I heard the Juillard Orchestra (which I assume is the top of several orchestras–I think there were five when I was in school there) about five years ago, in Carnegie Hall, and it was phenomenal.  When I was sorting out for myself issues raised by the now-settled Detroit Symphony strike, I speculated about whether or not the DSO management might be hoping a lot of the musicians would just quit, and mentioned the extraordinary level of the Juilliard Orchestra as an example of why someone might think you could just hire an all-new, fabulous orchestra, at substantially lower salaries and with more flexible attitudes.

Someone in a chat forum for cellists didn’t like that.  The Juilliard Orchestra may be good, came a comment, but it certainly is no Detroit Symphony. It takes years of playing together to create a great symphony orchestra.  And so on.

All of which is true.  The comment certainly resonated with me.

So I sat in Avery Fisher Hall Friday night, where I’ve also heard the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic this trip, and part of the time tried to compare the three ensembles. So I could say why the Juilliard Orchestra isn’t as good as them.

But at least as they were playing under Mr. Gilbert, I was stuck.

I’m reminded of occasional experiments where great old-master, multi-million-dollar Stradavaris and Guarneris are played, behind a screen, side by side with newly-made instruments.  The rankings come and, for the most part, people–players and music lovers–can’t tell which is which.  The new ones are often ranked above many of the old ones.

It was like that for me.  I think that the New York Phil strings, on their best nights, are warmer and richer. The Budapest band played Haydn with a humorful nuance that has got to take years of playing together to be able to achieve.  But for accuracy, clarity, precision, energy, dynamic range . . . I just don’t know how any group could be any better. Virtually flawless, with just a cracked brass note or two, which you hear with the greatest of orchestras.  The strings were so together, so tight, that I was reminded of an extraordinary  Cleveland Orchestra concert where the strings seemed like a string quartet.  It was that good.  Turn on the radio in the car, hear Friday night’s performance, and I doubt anyone would think “that’s a student orchestra.”

And no one in the orchestra looked bored, which is a common complaint about one of the groups I’ve mentioned. “What a thrill it must be for the students to play under Alan Gilbert,” I heard someone say.  Absolutely.  And I bet it was a thrill for him to work with attentive, excited, enthusiastic, brilliant and accomplished young people.

I’ve never heard any orchestra play with the delicate, daring softness that Gilbert drew from the Juilliard students as the last movement was inching towards its conclusion. Honest to god, I could hear people breathing–it was that quiet.  Sublime.

And then someone’s fucking cell phone went off.  In a purse or pocket.  So it had to be fished out and got louder when it emerged. It was promptly silenced.  But then, either that person or someone else turned off a phone, which did one of those longish “I’m shutting down” tunes.  Argh!

People say Fisher Hall’s acoustics aren’t so good, but that sucker carried.  

Katherine and I were thrilled to have been there.  As we walked out, I was struck by the sad thought that for many of the students, this may be the greatest orchestra, and the greatest concert, they’ll ever play in–there just aren’t jobs for all of them in top orchestras. When I have students on a sports team at DePauw, I’m always struck by the bittersweet quality of the last game of the year.  For the seniors, they’ve reached their peak and won’t ever play on that level again.  I’m sure it is the same thing for some of these young people.

But if so, what a way to go out.

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