Carnegie Hall, 11/14

At the Metropolitan Opera’s final performance of Dr. Atomic, if you were seated in the side balcony, it was hard to take your eyes off of conductor Alan Gilbert, he was so connected to every aspect of the performance, commanding in every detail.

Not that he is dancy or lording over the pit and audience, rather, he maintained a steeled exactness delivering John Adam’s seismic score. It was so interesting to see him in front of the New York Philharmonic the following night at Carnegie Hall.

On this occasion Gilbert was hopping around trying to coax expression and control out of his orchestra celebrating the music of Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein would have loved his the brutal wiliness of Dr. Atomic, but perhaps would have been less thrilled with the waywardness of this program.

Bernstein’s score to ‘On the Waterfront’ may have been a rough cut for the composer in Elia Kazan’s classic film, but it is nonetheless a compelling narrative work for the concert hall. It can evoke images and drama from the movie, but can be cut free as well. The Philharmonic is relied on the cinematic narrative progression, was tentative instead of subtle. The jazz structures, are completely dimensionless as played; the city fanfares just loud, when they should be driving. It bloomed more cohesively in the back half. There is even eloquence, as the orchestra thunders during the end passages, you could see a bloodied Brando (if not Bernstein) making his was through the crowd.

The most interesting work on the program is Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) with violinist Glenn Dicterow. The entrance solo by Dicterow, posing Bernstein’s philosophical questions, is beautifully essayed by Dicterow. From there, the Philharmonic is scrambled in the more ponderous enclaves, all the more jarring because they play some pretty tight passages. Dicterow settles in to an academic performance, that frequently framed muddy orchestral hand-offs.

Perhaps it seemed more glaring with such fresh memory of the thicket of colliding ideas in Dr. Atomic that Gilbert effortlessly controlled the night before. Last month, Loren Maazel conducted the NY Philharmonic in an all Tchaikovsky program in Philadelphia that was erratic in similar ways.

Who doesn’t love Bernstein’s score to ‘West Side Story’ but on this night it came off as completely gratuitous, teetering on being a crashing bore. Soprano Ana Maria Martinez and tenor Paul Groves left any chemistry offstage for their stiff duets in Suite No. 1. Groves was all goofy earnestness singing ‘Maria.’ The singers fared better on ‘One Hand, One Heart’ with moments of gorgeous vocal blending that was marred by their clunky body language. They sang ‘Somewhere’ like an art song, instead of a communal manifesto.

‘Suite No. 2’ had more life thanks to New York Choral Artists. Martinez loosened up for the always treacly in concert ’I Feel Pretty’ helped by three spirited women from the chorus. There is such charming faux swagger by the men for the ‘Jet Song’ but fellas, a little more vocal threat wouldn’t hurt. But what do I know, Gilbert obviously connected, and the audience begged for more, which fortunately kicked the concert into Bernstein cruise control.

Sheryl Staples, concertmaster, cues the orchestra for ’Candide’ with the conductor’s stand vacant, in tribute to Bernstein. Presto, Lenny’s glitter and sarcasm was all in place. The fun remained in spades for ‘Mambo’ the orchestra both bongo cool, the chorus rowdy and the hipsters really airing out Lenny’s best imitation of Basie.