DRESDEN, Germany (Reuters) - A concert in a car factory using parts of a luxury sedan as percussion instruments is one thing, but a Volkswagen suspended above the New York Philharmonic creates another level of musical drama entirely.
The NYPO under its first native New York music director, Alan Gilbert, showed during two concerts this week at the Dresden Music Festival in central Germany why the 46-year-old conductor has a reputation for brushing off the cobwebs at one of America's most distinguished orchestras.
"Whatever you do, you have to do it with conviction and you actually have to believe in it," Gilbert told Reuters in an interview after a super-charged rehearsal of Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg's "Kraft".
The piece was performed in concert on Tuesday night inside Volkswagen's stunning glass-fronted assembly plant for its Phaeton sedan in a leafy area of the city.
Lindberg himself hammered away on assorted car parts, including coil springs, part of a spare wheel assembly and a cylinder used in the Phaeton's air suspension.
The whole thing was made possible courtesy of the car company in what regional Volkswagen CEO Hans-Joachim Rothenpieler called a "special crazy idea".
New York Philharmonic horn, wind, percussion and string players were kept busy rotating to different places and levels in the performance area for a piece Lindberg said is a celebration of sound and space.
Gilbert's podium was backed by part of a front grill assembly for the Phaeton, while an unfinished 500 kg car body lit from the inside hung suspended over the orchestra.
Lindberg said he aimed to go beyond experimenting with the clanging sounds of car parts that might only be familiar to fans of Japanese techno and electronic music.
"But on top of this we have the full symphony orchestra here so at moments it goes to a very classical orchestral sound, using the whole span from very classical to the extreme."
This may not be the New York Philharmonic that someone's father, mother or grandparents bought a matinee subscription for, but it is an orchestra that Gilbert says stands up for what it believes in.
In a way, he thinks the orchestra's late, great music director Leonard Bernstein would have applauded.
Bernstein rattled the cage of the concert-going public with a series devoted to new music that brought howls of anguish from audiences and critics alike. Now Gilbert is doubling the stakes.
He gave New York its first performance of Gyorgy Ligeti's absurdist opera "Le Grande Macabre" and resurrected 20th-century musical bad boy Karlheinz Stockhausen's rarely performed, three-orchestra "Gruppen".
Gilbert decried the practice of balancing orchestral programs that have provocative pieces in them with traditional music to assuage the feelings of music fans who might not like it when their favorite orchestra fiddles with their expectations for standard Beethoven or Mozart.
"It's become what I call 'the Bolero effect'," Gilbert said, referring to Ravel's sacred cow of the orchestral repertoire. "The problem is that people see through it. They know that you don't really believe in what you're doing and that, unfortunately, becomes the message."
Gilbert, the son of musician parents who played in the Philharmonic, and whose mother, Yoko Takebe, was among the violinists for a four-week tour of Turkey and Europe that winds up this week in Austria, believes passionately not only in the new and modern repertoire, but also in upholding the standards that made the orchestra famous.
The orchestra's opening concert on Monday night at the magnificent baroque Dresden Semperoper featured something for everyone from the traditional repertoire.
There was a finely crafted Mozart "Linzer" symphony, a soulful rendering of Bloch's "Schelomo" Hebrew rhapsody for cello with Dresden Music Festival director Jan Vogler as soloist, and a Mussorgsky "Pictures at an Exhibition" featuring enough NYPO brass power to knock your socks off.
One of the encores saw the brass section parade around the stage playing a Dixieland tune, but the other was an intermezzo from Puccini's "Manon Lascaut" - a strong hint of where Gilbert, whose contract as music director recently was renewed through the 2016-2017 season, is headed.
And what is it like having his mother in the violin section?
"The thing that makes it really all work is the fact she is playing great, there are still no issues as far as that is concerned - happily for both of us."
The Dresden Music Festival, in its 36th season, continues through June 2 with, among others, concerts by violinist Victoria Mullova and her cellist husband Matthew Barley, the Philharmonia Orchestra of London under conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and a finale with American troubador Rufus Wainwright.
Editing by Paul Casciato