On May 6, the New York Philharmonic performed two serious seventh symphonies: Beethoven’s boisterous A (op. 92) and Sibelius’ programmatic C (op. 105). The evening was capped with shorter-length works from these two greats, the 15-minute intermission serving as a time launch between composers, styles, and centuries.

Beginning with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture after several rounds of introductory applause, the New York Phil arrived to stun. Alan Gilbert conducted with the motions of how one might imagine a partially deaf, commercially-frustrated Beethoven composing in ill health would. The Egmont was written for a Hofburgtheater revival of Goethe’s 1786 play of the same name, a historic tragedy surrounding the Dutch Count Egmont.

With Gilbert at the helm and the New York his crew, the night opened strong, almost forcefully. It was hard to tell if we had simply taken the collective talent of the New York Phil for granted by the Allegretto movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 or if the composition was unforgivingly mechanic; so well-oiled and at attention was each instrument and section. Beethoven, of all composers, could’ve afforded to be a little more erratic. The symphony moved almost immediately from its technically hairy Presto to its final movement, the [Allegro] con brio, which deserved the audience’s standing applause.

But it was the standing ovation after the intermission, following Sibelius’ Finlandia, that was more deserved. Warm horns and pastoral winds glowed in the later composer’s Symphony No. 7, which was written rather unconventionally in the spirit of visual poetry. The entire 22-minute piece is without breaks, its instrumentation carefully layered and requiring a few difficult page turns. The last few years of Gilbert’s seven conducting with the New York Phil has allowed him to ease his spastic motions during the Beethoven program.

“I don’t know if I have another one in me,” he said to the audience after Finlandia, referring to the vigour of the previous four pieces. Thus, the encore finished the evening with the Davies Symphony Hall audience engrossed in another work of incidental music (like Egmont): Sibelius’ Valse triste.

New York Philharmonic Official Orchestra Portrait 2014 at Avery Fisher Hall. Photo by Chris Lee

New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall, 2014. Photo by Chris Lee.

Friday marked the New York Phil’s 16,069th concert and, if I may borrow Sibelius’ intent for his No. 7, an absolute joy. The symphony demonstrated technical prowess throughout the first half, and everyone found a moment of clarity in the second half for a truly inspiring night.

Article by Joanna Jiang

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