Gilbert's hitting his stride on the podium

September 28, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Two years ago Alan Gilbert stepped on to the Baltimore Symphony podium as a last-minute substitute for guest conductor Mario Venzago. Gilbert, then in his late 20s and an assistant conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra, was -- except to concert managers whose business it is to keep track of such matters -- an unknown quantity. But he gave a strong account of himself in a program that included the subtle and hard-to-put-across Schumann Symphony No. 2 and the difficult-to-accompany Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2.

When he returned to Meyerhoff Hall Friday evening to conduct the Baltimore Symphony in an all-Beethoven program, he was not a substitute, but a rising star whose other recent engagements include appearances with the Boston Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic.

As Gunther Herbig's enervated-sounding "Eroica" had demonstrated a week earlier, Beethoven's familiar works can confront even experienced conductors with land mines. But Gilbert's reading of the composer's best-known work, the Fifth Symphony, was most impressive. The orchestra's musicians responded sympathetically to the conductor's youthful impetuousness, and the result was persuasively warm and exciting. If the finale lacked the dignity that the very best performances achieve, it certainly blazed in triumph. Good young conductors are rare, and Gilbert is the real thing. His only enemies will be either bad luck or big head.

The program included three movements from Beethoven's Mass C (with the BSO Chorus and a well-balanced team of soloists that featured a particularly stylish contribution from tenor Steven Tharp) and the composer's Fantasy for Piano, Orchestra and Chorus.

The latter -- familiarly known (to those few familiar with it) as the "Choral Fantasy" -- is one of Beethoven's most bizarre concoctions. But its long opening solo, which evokes the composer improvising at the keyboard, provides a dazzling opportunity for a pianist strong enough to seize it. It was, therefore, a pleasure to hear it performed with such confidence and power by Lang Lang, a 16-year-old student at the Curtis Institute, who was making his Baltimore debut and from whom we should expect great things in the decades to come.

Pub Date: 9/28/98

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