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Devil Inside Mr. Gatti: How to Make an Audience Faint

ROYAL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA featuring director Daniele Gatti at Symphony Hall October 26

By Andrea H. Kurtz, CONTRIBUTING WRITER

They came in droves. Silver-haired classical music connoisseurs, critics and the rare college student streamed into Symphony Hall on Sunday night to view the fourth installment of the 1997-'98 BankBoston Celebrity Series, now in its ninth year of bringing world-renowned artists to a city where culture begs to be seen, heard and adored. The Celebrity Series'latest import, Italian music director Daniele Gatti and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, proved itself worthy of adoration.

At the ripe age of 37, Daniele Gatti has already established himself as one of the world's foremost classical conductors due to his unabashed physical and emotional freedom of expression in directing his orchestra. Anyone whose career of musical instruction and performance spans nearly three decades should eventually attain such a degree of skill, but it is Gatti's highly visible selfimmersion in his profession that brings him well-deserved distinction. Deemed the foremost conductor of his generation by some, the renowned Italian director had some high expectations to fulfill in his interpretation of Schubert's Symphony No. 8, (the "Unfinished") and Mahler's Symphony No. 5 on Sunday night.

The audience in Symphony Hall on Sunday was undoubtedly seeking the "fire and flair" of Gatti's technique promised by the concert program. Like any fire, some smoldering must occur before the flames actually rise. Perhaps it was the amber-suffused ambience of the concert hall, or simply the burden of starting anew in the midst of a frenzied three-week tour that dampened Gatti's artistry in the first piece. Nevertheless, the true focus of the night--the music and its performance by Britain's national orchestra--remained unmistakably passionate.

With nary an indication of a downbeat from Gatti, the lower strings slid into the haunting opening strains of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, displaying a rhythmic alliance so perfectly refined that it truly seemed as if only one instrument were present. The placement of the cellos between the second violins and the violas allowed for a heightened clarity, producing a concentrated, almost sinewy tone that typified the Allegro Moderato. The first movement elapsed without any fiery outbursts; Gatti instead focused intently upon the lyric strains of the oboe and clarinet. His conducting was comprised of a fairly conventional fluidity of motion. His baton described tightly restrained circles throughout much of the movement, and only with the arrival of a succession of full-orchestra chords did one view great, ardent sweeping motions that subsided as quickly as they had come.

With the second movement of the Schubert came an increase in Gatti's emotional intensity, though physical dramatics for the most part remained conspicuously absent. At times one could see the conductor shaking his head from side to side--sometimes mouthing words to the first violins, sometimes gazing out above the mass of musicians with his lower lip protruding. Under his command, the orchestra executed the polyphonic intricacies of the Andante con Moto in perfect synchrony. One could feel the layers of music meshing throughout the hall as they blanketed the audience with their warmth.

Despite the orchestra's spotless technical precision and resplendent articulation of Schubert's themes, the spotlight continued to linger upon Gatti's motions. While the concertmaster nearly leapt from his chair at various highlycharged moments, Gatti barely took a step from his position at the front of his platform. "Gatti seemed a bit stiff," remarked one passer-by during intermission, having apparently hoped to view the conductor's signature "dramatic and instinctive style."

The passing of her judgment may have been a bit premature, however. Perhaps the character of the symphony did not lend great animation to Gatti's directing. Had he been standing in front of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, of which he was appointed Music Director in September, he may have exhibited more of the artistry that comes from being "a part of the drama" in conducting an operatic performance.

Any misgivings about Daniele Gatti's sense of expression were quelled with the introduction of the Mahler symphony. From the first notes of the melancholy Funeral March, Gatti was literally on his toes, straining visibly to extract as much sound as possible from his orchestra. Again, the central placement of the cello section onstage allowed for the diffusion of a remarkably pithy timbre perfectly suited to the first movement. Passages seemed to dissolve into dissonance, sliding into prolonged suspensions wherein the orchestra became a sea of reddened faces.

Particularly captivating were the viola-oboe duet and the deep rumblings of the timpani near the end of the first movement--think of the T running underneath the building all of you Wigg residents. The same all-encompassing, electrifying force galvanized listeners throughout the furious oscillation of the second movement's sometimes lamenting, sometimes triumphant phrases.

After such a physically and emotionally draining movement, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor alike seemed to rejoice in the relaxed, waltz-like pace of the gargantuan Scherzo. The introduction of bells and intricate spiccato/pizzicato sections augmented the diversity of texture in the third movement, whose screaming finale prompted Gatti to take a handkerchief from his packet and wipe his cheek before proceeding into the final two movements of Mahler's fifth symphony.

If the concertgoers in Symphony Hall had been disappointed by the lack of a visual spectacle to accompany the delivery of their aural divertissement, they now realized that the best had truly been saved for last. The music itself was enough to enthrall the listeners, but even the juxtaposition of flowing harp and string lines in the Adagietto against the hysteria of Mahler's militaristic finale paled against one man's unearthly presence. Jacket strained across his back, he quavered with emotion, pressing his fingers to his lips to evoke a sense of the bellissimo in the Adagietto; in the frenzied phrases of the Rondo-Finale, his movements turned angular. Seemingly suspended by the strings of some otherworldly puppeteer, Gatti defied gravity as he crouched and leaned over the stands of the violins, pulling at the air and throwing his arms to the heavens with each fervent cadence.

Only after the roiling whirlwind of notes subsided did the figure at the center of the stage relinquish his grasp of inspiration and allow his arms fall to his sides, giving the final cue of the evening. The audience understood and responded with a thunderclap of applause, adding four standing ovations to his collection.

Life couldn't be better for Gatti, whose career first seized him at the age of 13. Studying at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan propelled him towards what he calls "a magic meeting," though whether the meeting was with destiny or his future wife, Sylvia, a fellow student at the Conservatory, is unclear. In either case, Gatti has moved forward from that magic meeting to the pinnacle of musical acclaim. One needs only to watch him at work to realize how sincere Daniel Gatti is when he says, "I am very happy to do what I am doing now."

Daniele Gatti is currently finishing his first tour of the United States, which will culminate in a performance at the John F. Kennedy Center on Nov. 2. Aside from Schubert and Mahler, the Royal Philharmonic repertoire includes Schumann's Piano Concerto, Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 8, as well as Respighi's Fountains of Rome, a piece just recorded in the first installment of Gatti's contract with BMG's Conifer Classics label.

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