Before a nationally televised audience Wednesday night, Alan Gilbert became the New York Philharmonic's 25th music director, opening on a bold note - the world premiere of Magnus Lindberg's "EXPO."
It's the first time a new work had been scheduled for a Philharmonic gala opener since 1962, when Leonard Bernstein led Copland's "Connotations" to celebrate the orchestra's move to Lincoln Center.
In another daring move, Gilbert reached deep into the repertoire and plucked out Messiaen's "Poemes pour Mi," a set of love songs by the French composer for his wife. Written in 1937, it had never been performed by the Philharmonic. The selections of soprano Renee Fleming as soloist in that work, plus Berlioz's immortal "Symphonie fantastique" helped ease any concern about obscurity.
One of the orchestra's youngest music directors, the 42-year-old Gilbert takes over after a seven-year tenure by Lorin Maazel, who retired at age 79.
The Harvard-Juilliard-Curtis-trained Gilbert is no stranger to the orchestra. He first appeared as guest conductor in 2001, and he literally grew up with the Philharmonic. His father is a retired Philharmonic violinist; his mother, Yoko Takebe, is in the first violin section. Despite the presence of her son on the podium, she focused on the music and appeared to go out of her way not to look at him during the audience ovations at Avery Fisher Hall.
In an interview last month, Gilbert said his programming is part of a balanced evolution to move classical music forward while paying homage to its immortal past.
"We're not making any effort to hide, obscure the new pieces that we are playing," he said. "You're not going to see any programing where we choose a popular old work to neutralize the new piece or to try to compensate for the presumably unpleasant experience of hearing a new piece because we don't think it will be an unpleasant experience."
Wednesday's concert was provocative, and certainly wasn't unpleasant.
Lindberg, who just started a two-year tenure as the orchestra's composer in residence, says "EXPO" refers to the exposition of Gilbert's season. After that first percussive slap, the strings embark on a lightning flight that leads to a mysterious halting response from the brass and primordial eruptions of percussion.
The 15-minute work, which has allusions to Lindberg's great fellow Finnish predecessor Jean Sibelius and to Ravel and Bernstein, is filled with contrasts. Lindberg wrote in the program that they symbolize Gilbert's approach to music - "absolute technical and physical straightness" and "the highly irrational and mysterious part of how you put music together."
Lindberg ends "EXPO" in a ponderous way, more a question than an answer. Does this signify a will-o'-the-wisp hope for Gilbert as he and the orchestra embark on its 168th season?
Not when you also program Fleming and Berlioz. Fleming was stunning in Messiaen's "Poemes." Wearing a royal blue gown designed by Angel Sanchez, Fleming sang passionately and nearly nonstop during this 30 minute ethereal ode to the Roman Catholic sacrament of marriage. With great sensitivity, Gilbert directed the orchestra through the delicate accompaniment.
"Symphonie fantastique" was a fitting conclusion that lived up to its name. Written in 1830, it tells of the composer's obsession with the actress Harriet Smithson. In the symphony, the artist stalks his elusive beloved, and dreams he kills her while addled by opium, then is led to the scaffold, loses his head, only to cavort with witches. (In real life, Berlioz married Smithson three years after finishing the symphony.)
Gilbert led an energetic account and chose to include the repeats of the expositions in the first and fourth movements. Its rousing conclusion drew the audience to its feet for a five-minute ovation.
So the exposition has just begun for Gilbert's five-year tenure. Next month, he takes the orchestra on an Asian tour, with performances in five countries including his mother's native Japan, and the Philharmonic's first performances in Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates. A tour of Cuba is also being planned.
In four concerts in December and April, he devotes the program to world premieres by contemporary composers Marc-Andre Dalbavie, Lei Liang, Arlene Sierra, Arthur Kampela, Sean Shepherd, Nico Muhly and Matthias Pintscher, and in May, he leads the New York premiere of Ligeti's opera "Le Grand Macabre."
But it's all not new. He performs Mahler's 3rd through Tuesday, and there are plenty of core pieces scheduled.