The Start of the Alan Gilbert Era
21 September 2009 | Eugene Boyko
Shakespeare wrote that people are either born great, achieve greatness, or have greatness “thrust upon them.” In the case of the New York Philharmonic’s new Music Director, Alan Gilbert, all three apply: his natural gifts are indisputable and his virtuosic conducting has earned international acclaim. Now he’s been handed the symphony world’s crowning glory — the leadership of the New York Philharmonic, an honor and responsibility not lost on the 42-year-old maestro who, as the son of two Philharmonic violinists, grew up with the Orchestra’s sound quite literally in his ear.
“I’m getting to know the Orchestra in a very different way,” Mr. Gilbert says. “It’s one thing to be a guest conductor and another to assume the responsibilities inherent in a permanent relationship. But we already have such a warm, positive chemistry between us,” he adds, “and musically this Orchestra brings so much to the table. That’s what makes them great; so much can be left in their hands.”
Alan Gilbert’s vision for the New York Philharmonic is clearly influenced by the crucial time in Lincoln Center’s history when he is taking the reins — the 50th anniversary, when the 12 constituents are evolving to accommodate a rapidly changing world. “It’s so fortuitous to start exactly at this moment,” Mr. Gilbert confides. “There are chemistries, connections, and ‘combustions’ that would come from a more interconnected net among the constituents, and that’s starting to happen. All of our imaginations are coming into play; we’re talking to each other and the sky’s the limit!” He can speak for more than the Philharmonic, since this month he is also becoming The Juilliard School’s first-ever William Schuman Chair in Musical Studies, which will allow him to return to his alma mater to influence a new generation.
The New York Philharmonic is regarded as a curator of great musical tradition and a “laboratory” for musical innovation. Mr. Gilbert feels these dual roles can coexist harmoniously, as long as the commitment for each is equal and they are handled as integral parts of a historical whole.
“I don’t see any contrary demands from these elements,” he asserts. “Orchestras play music: there is literature that’s been around for many years and that which is more recent, and it is all part of an unbroken chain. My biggest challenge,” Mr. Gilbert continues, “will be to create an atmosphere in which everything we play and all the activities we undertake feel as if they are part of this continuum. We must really believe in the music we choose to perform; we must feel it is beneficial for the Orchestra and the audience, and that it illuminates other music in the repertoire — all pieces should inform other pieces. The right programming combinations and the sincerity with which we present all works, old and new, will communicate the notion that we perform new commissions not out of obligation, but because we want to.”
Mr. Gilbert’s penchant for collaboration is one of his great strengths. “I have no illusions,” he says, modestly. “I could not and would not want to do it alone.” For the first Composer-in-Residence of his choosing he has selected Magnus Lindberg, a Finn whose new work, EXPO, helps inaugurate the Music Director’s tenure on Opening Night, in early subscription performances, and on tour in October. “Lindberg is a marvelous composer, a passionate advocate for all music — not just contemporary,” Mr. Gilbert declares. “He’s aware of what’s going on worldwide and is involved in education and mentoring. He’s a skilled conductor, an excellent pianist, a broad musician, and an eloquent, engaging speaker.” The new Music Director muses: “It’s great for a composer to have personal knowledge of an ensemble like the New York Philharmonic. I’m fascinated to see how this relationship will inform his compositions.”
Like many past great New York Philharmonic directors (Gustav Mahler, Arturo Toscanini, Lorin Maazel, to name just three), Alan Gilbert is a distinguished conductor of opera. “I love the voice,” he says. “It’s the root of universal expression.” In May 2010 he and the Philharmonic will give the New York premiere of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. Further, he has chosen singers as collaborators for some vital events and initiatives. For the Orchestra’s first-ever Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in- Residence, the nod went to baritone Thomas Hampson.
Mr. Gilbert explains: “We wanted a distinguished musician who is amenable to performing chamber music and teaching; a scholar and music advocate beloved by New York audiences. Tom fits that bill.” The baritone’s qualifications are perfect, as he is also the Philharmonic’s Leonard Bernstein Scholar-in-Residence for the season.
The Russian Stravinsky: A Philharmonic Festival, conducted by Valery Gergiev, is a collaboration that thrills Alan Gilbert. “We enticed Valery to join us with something special so he’d come for a length of time,” he confides. “An intense examination of Stravinsky appealed to him. This composer’s music went through many incarnations and reincarnations; how marvelous to hear Gergiev’s treatment of that!”
Mr. Gilbert and the participating Philharmonic players are eagerly anticipating the newly formed contemporary-music series, CONTACT. “This year we are doing all world premieres — very daring!” Mr. Gilbert says. “But it’s a dimension of music that is important for the Orchestra to experience; there’s very little that is more exciting than bringing a new piece to life. To say that the Philharmonic musicians have been supportive doesn’t do them justice,” he marvels. “They are avidly pushing this forward.”
One thing is certain: the New York Philharmonic and its audience are in the hands of a maestro who views all great music — past, present, and future — with the same awed reverence and unbridled passion. Music is his journey and his listeners, his cherished travel companion. “I’d like to develop a special kind of rapport and trust with our audience,” Alan Gilbert says. “The kind of belief that would make them feel comfortable hearing anything we program simply because we programmed it.
“Looking ahead,” he continues, “I hope my performances with the Orchestra will consist of our tightly combined human chemistry, a clear persona that is both identifiable and enjoyable. Whether the pieces turn out to be ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ music comes to life only when it is played. I think our audience understands this and will take that journey with us.”