At Carnegie Gala, Sub Conductor Displays Heroics

A not so funny thing happened on the way to the opera.

Italian conductor Daniele Gatti arrived in New York from Japan 1 1/2 weeks ago to lead "Aida" at the Metropolitan Opera, his first appearance there since 1995. Then, two days before the gala opening of Carnegie Hall's 119th season, the scheduled conductor, James Levine, canceled all commitments through December to undergo back surgery.

Hours after the cancellation announcement, the 47-year-old Gatti finished the dress rehearsal for "Aida" for Friday night's Met performance and agreed to fill in for Levine and lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie's Thursday night opener.

At dawn Wednesday, he left for Boston, studying the score of John Williams' newly composed harp concerto as he was driven there for a 2 1/2 hour rehearsal. Gatti, the orchestra, harpist Ann Hobson Pilot and pianist Evgeny Kissin rehearsed for two more hours in New York on Thursday.

If that were not enough heroics, Gatti donated his five-figure fee to the BSO in honor of the 67-year-old Levine, who is being treated for a herniated disk.

The performance got off to a rocky start. Because Gatti was uncomfortable with the scheduled first number, Berlioz's "Roman Carnival" Overture, he opted for Beethoven's "Coriolan" Overture. The opening attacks were jagged rather than precise. The tempi were plodding and unexciting. Despite some thrilling music, the performance was dull.

Things got better with Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2. Gatti led the orchestra in a smooth accompaniment to Kissin's magnificent solo performance. It's a work that won Kissin world attention when he first performed it in his native Moscow in 1984 at age 12.

Now, nine days before his 38th birthday, Kissin was at it again. Agitated sections were filled with brio, Kissin's lyrical lines were dreamy, his runs flawless, his pauses pregnant with anticipation. After a three minute standing ovation, he rewarded the audience with two solo encores _ charming runs through Liszt's "Soirees de Vienne (Valses caprices d'apres Schubert)" No. 6 and Chopin's "Minute Waltz" (which actually took a minute, 41 seconds).

After intermission, Gatti faced Williams' "On Willows and Birches," which had its world premiere only a week earlier by Pilot, Levine and the BSO. The Hollywood composer and former leader of the Boston Pops wrote the concerto for Pilot in honor of her retirement this summer. The two had collaborated in Boston for 13 years.

The first movement is inspired by Psalm 137, a lament of the Israelites in exile in Babylon: "We hanged our harps upon the willows." The music is more ethereal than mournful, with the nearly constant harp towering over the soft musical cushion provided by Gatti.

The second movement is a joyous, Bernstein-like, romp on Robert Frost's poem "Birches." ("One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.") Gatti's quick study in the car paid off. He kept the orchestra under control as Pilot artfully breezed through her part.

The final number was Debussy's "La Mer." Despite not having performed this complicated work since November 2006, Gatti conducted it by memory. Through the impressionistic undulations, shimmering melodies, flittering asides and stormy agitations, Gatti led a memorable account.

For Gatti, who is music director of the Orchestre National de France, his first performance at Carnegie Hall in 12 years ended on a truly triumphant note.

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