Music man with no limits

At a peppery 90 years old, Carnegie Hall is still ripe for a good idea. Recently it launched a string of "Festival Concerts" -- marking the first time this grand old auditorium has taken on "the artistic planning and financial underwriting" of a concert series.

The event, comprising 13 concerts, ends June 11, including two visits to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for four programs. The series focuses on music by Bartok -- whose 100th anniversary occurs this year -- and Schubert, with occasional works by other composers of a romantic bent.

Not surprisingly, the names involved are big. Pinchas Zukerman is artistic director, Isaac Stern, Leonard Rose, and Misha Dichter are among the performers, and the series involves eight orchestral and chamber concerts and five "Perspective Concerts," the latter slated for twilight hours at Carnegie Recital Hall.

But this wouldn't be "a significant step in developing our artistic future," as Isaac Stern claimed in announcing the series, if it were just a celebration of established superstars. Talents not quite so celebrated -- so far -- are sharing the stage. Among them is Gordon Gottlieb, a young percussionist who plays extensively with the New York and other philharmonics, and made his Carnegie Hall conducting debut last February. I had lunch with him recently -- partly to greet the Festival Concerts, in which he is performing, and partly to plumb his musical career, which shows a versatility that's downright amazing.

True, musical barriers have been breaking down. Jazzmen dabble in the classics while conservatory graduates turn to rock. But talk to Gordon Gottlieb and you'd think there were no limits left. An alumnus of Juilliard, he plays new music with Speculum Musicae and the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, and traditional music with various opera, ballet, modern dance, and Broadway orchestras. Switching to a different set of sticks, he has played jazz with the likes of Keith Jarrett and Sarah Vaughan, and written for dance groups and films. Even rock isn't too far afield for this accompanist of Bette Midler and -- are you ready? -- Engelbert Humperdinck.

In the Festival series, Gottlieb will appear June 10 with 13 other musicians in an evening of Bartok and Schubert sonatinas and the Schubert Octet in F. Amid his musical travels, he seems to place highest priority on the classical side of his art. Yet he takes an unusual approach, stressing the importance of improvisation, which is a lost knack among many page-trained performers. A favorite experiment is to team with his twin brother, Jay -- a pianist living in Paris -- and create a totally improvised piece, before the eyes and ears of their audience.

Do the various facets of Gottlieb's work reinforce one another? Only in the broadest sense, according to the musician. "When you play rock, you have to be rock-steady," he says. "That's a good experience to have, but it's a lot different from what may be asked of you in a symphony performance a few days later." In any case, it can be fun traveling between these very different worlds. "I've had studio musicians come up and ask me, Hey, what's it like playing with a conductor?"

Is there any kind of music Gottlieb can't abide? "Country and western, I guess" -- and the "minimalist" composers -- whose talent is also "minimal," in his opinion. From all appearances, Gottlieb's energy is as maximal as his versatility, and those are mighty handy qualities in today's crowded music world. His future looks as good as his present.

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