If it was Alan Gilbert's aim to become music director of the New York Philharmonic and have minimal effect on the character of the ensemble, he is, in his third season, succeeding. The Philharmonic is a fine orchestra. But Friday night at the Kimmel Center, the New Yorkers were the same old collection of free-wheeling individualists they have been for years.
In the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition, there was little sense that anyone would - or could? - make them blend. And yet, perhaps out of deference to their cashmere-voiced soloist, they reached for and usually achieved the kind of shimmer needed to bring off Berlioz's Les nuits d'été. Coarseness and brawn, it seems, is a conscious choice for these players.
There is something to be said for strong personality. Tightly wound brass and percussion flattered Steven Stucky's Son et lumière. Sound and light, the title of the Kansas-born composer's score tells us to expect, and we get them in a range of shades. The 10-minute work from 1988 functions as an overture, starting and ending with the same three-shot drum gesture. A quickly passing landscape gives listeners a lot of tangible features to track - an opening that recalls Bernstein, a subtle rock/pop influence, brass snarls, repeated melodic fragments. If it fails to be fully likable, Stucky's piece paces out material in a way that keeps you waiting for what happens next.
Joyce DiDonato, the mezzo-soprano with perhaps the fiercest following since the early days of Cecilia Bartoli, revealed her full promise in the first few phrases of the first song in Berlioz's song cycle. Here, she was the one with a refined sense of blending, leaning into the sounds of specific instruments - becoming them, almost - or, when the text dictated, edging more human and emotional.
The sound, of course, is gorgeous. Diction to her is an expressive tool to be manipulated in a thousand little ways. What's most impressive about her - especially in a hall as large as Verizon - was the relationship she established between text and tone. That pale sound at the end of the third-movement lament? It greatly deepened our understanding of a bitter fate of solitude.
Was Gilbert leading musicians in Pictures, or following them? In the beginning it was clearly the former; later, less so. If the horns protruded and trumpets added an acerbic layer, you were grateful for the brass section's wall of sound in "The Catacombs." Its massiveness may have had some reaching for earplugs, but here, within this section, one could enjoy an admirable accord on entrances and shared philosophy of sound.