“Music remains for me not sacred, but a spiritual moment. I’m devoted to God because I think I was gifted by him, and I know that my mission during my years here on this earth is just to try and develop the gift that I received.” - RCO Chief Conductor Daniele Gatti, NY Times, 2016
By most estimates one of the best orchestras in the world (if not the best), the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has always impressed during their visits to the Big Apple. But, as great as this orchestra has been for most of its 130 year existence, the addition of the formidable maestro Daniele Gatti last season as Chief Conductor seemed to raise the artistic bar even higher, as evidenced by their two concerts at Carnegie Hall this week.
These were Gatti's first local appearances with the RCO, but he is no stranger to New York concertgoers, having led the Vienna Phil in a series of memorable concerts in 2015, as well as the Met's extraordinary new Parsifal in 2013, which returns next month. As with that six hour opera, Gatti conducted everything on these concerts from memory, revealing a near-insane level of preparation that is said to extend beyond mere score analysis to poring over biographies, historical essays, even related novels and plays that the composer may have read.
This deep level of familiarity allows Gatti to take the music to unexpected places. In the Act 3 Prelude and "Good Friday Music" from Parsifal, Gatti drew the tempi way out to highlight the majestic consonances of Wagner's music in the tender strings and burnished brass. It was clear from the outset that Gatti had gone over every square inch of the score - each note, every marking - and had successfully gotten the RCO players to buy into his vision.
Bruckner labored on the 9th for nearly a decade, and left it unfinished at his death in 1896. Though there have been attempts to reconstruct the unfinished final movement - most notably a version by musicologists Nicola Samale, Giuseppe Mazzuca, John Phillips and Benjamin-Cunnar Cohrs championed by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic - most performances end after the 3rd movement Adagio, as was the case here.
Gatti was in full on Shaman mode, building the music in the first movement from a primeval lugubriousness to a roaring, almost violent intensity. Before we had a chance to catch our collective breath, he went straight into the 2nd movement attacca, cutting the upward flourish of the strings like a knife. In the Adagio finale, Gatti didn't shy away from strange, almost shocking dissonances, offsetting them with soaring sonorites and a quiet, peaceful conclusion. Like any fine chef, Gatti understands that a finely prepared dish needs both bitter and sweet.
The following night's program was cut from a bit brighter shade of the repertory, which may have explained the packed audience vs. the rows of empty seats I saw on Wednesday. Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 doesn't have anything as profound or ponderous to say as Wagner or Bruckner, but it did provide a solid showpiece for Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, a Carnegie Hall Perspectives artist who was was no doubt excited to be onstage with her country's most celebrated musical institution.
Mixing sweet with sad, Jansen dispatched the tricky solos with power and finesse - if not complete effortlessness - and was matched toe for toe by the RCO's precision and power. As an encore, she played Manuel De Falla's beguiling and exotic "Nana", which sounded as if it came from a Middle Eastern souk.
Gustav Mahler was a frequent guest conductor of the RCO in its early days, so it was only appropriate that they concluded their New York residency with his Symphony No. 1. At points joyous and ominous, the RCO gave fresh ears to this youthful symphony (Mahler wrote it when he was only 28), full of wild, manic passages that incorporates everything but the kitchen sink. Gatti seemed a bit out of his element in the wild, exuberant music, but still demonstrated complete command - particularly in the electric, fanfare-driven finale, which was as exhilarating an experience as I've ever had at Carnegie Hall - or anywhere else for that matter. Ah, New York: "it's good to live it again."