The New York Philharmonic chose a relative unknown as their new chief conductor. Just before he took up the baton, Alan Gilbert talked to James Inverne about his plans
Even at a time when appointing little-known conductors is all the rage, the identity of Lorin Maazel’s successor at the New York Philharmonic came as a shock. There had been much debate about who would replace the 79-year-old maestro. Among orchestra-watchers, Riccardo Muti had at one time seemed a favourite, Daniel Barenboim’s name had been discussed. Yet even if it were neither of these, surely the latest in the royal line of Bernstein, Boulez, Mehta, Masur and Maazel would have to be a big name? It is all very well for the San Francisco Opera to appoint Nicola Luisotti, for the Pittsburgh Symphony to go for Manfred Honeck or the Dallas Symphony for Jaap van Zweden (names that would until recently have drawn a blank for many American concert-goers). But this is the New York Phil, for Pete’s sake, in many ways the showpiece institution among US orchestras and one not known for being unconventional. They like their big names. So the announcement that Alan Gilbert, 42, would take over from Maazel was a surprise. To say the least.
But perhaps it should not have been. Look at what was happening elsewhere. Aside from the three listed above, fresh faces were being linked to key jobs all around the music world. Vladimir Jurowski to the London Philharmonic, Yannick Nézet-Séguin to the Rotterdam Phil, Gustavo Dudamel (then unknown) to Gothenburg and to the LA Phil soon afterwards, Edward Gardner to English National Opera, Andris Nelsons to Birmingham’s CBSO. And the Maazel of recent seasons was widely seen as eminent but musically unadventurous, a sense that was beginning to rub off on the band he headed. It was time.
It is rumoured that the choice came down to a final two – Gilbert and David Robertson. Neither was a safe choice, neither especially famous (though Robertson has a sound reputation), either would send a definite message to audiences and players alike. For the first time since Leonard Bernstein was appointed in 1958, the job went to a New Yorker born and bred. And a face that most would pass in a crowd.
As I do. En route to Gilbert’s house in a remarkably pleasant suburb of Stockholm, the conductor phones my mobile to ascertain that it is indeed I who have just walked straight past him at the tram station. In jeans and jumper, he has just been buying groceries for lunch and we sit together on the tram until we reach his stop. He may be the most down-to-earth major conductor I have ever met. Certainly the most considerate – texting and calling me several times on my circuitous journey from the central train station to ensure that I don’t get lost. At no point does he play the star maestro. Mind you, despite his current post at the head of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, nobody on the train seems to recognise him either.
After we reach his spacious abode, picking our way through children’s toys in the garden, he hands me a quite enormous mug of tea and settles into a sofa. Considering that he is weeks away from his summer concerts with his new American orchestra, after which he officially takes over, he is supremely relaxed (what might be termed “Obama-esque”). Mind you, it’s not as though he and the players are complete strangers. Gilbert is part of the family, literally, both parents having been violinists for the orchestra (his mother, Yoko Takebe, still is, though his father, Michael Gilbert, has retired).
So what was the Philharmonic to him growing up, I ask – just an orchestra? A place your parents went to work? A way of life? “All of the above,” he smiles. “When I was a young child I had a lot to do with the orchestra. When they toured my parents were of course part of that and my sister and I very often travelled with them. I used to help hand out the passports, I knew the players, I used to sit on the planes with them and play games. We were all close.”
Although such experiences, alongside Michael Tilson Thomas’s children’s concerts (the series Bernstein had famously initiated), provided an early introduction to the classics, it was a different genre that attracted him at school. “I played drums in my schools’ jazz bands,” he recalls. “I still love jazz.” Did he need it, I wonder, as light relief from the continual soundtrack to his early home life? He grins at the suggestion. “If you’re implying that it was some sort of antidote, it wasn’t like that at all. My parents also loved jazz and Dad was always playing me jazz records. In some ways, jazz was a flip side of classical. It filled out the picture. And being exposed to jazz has served me very well. I realised that the lines that people draw between styles are very artificial.”
One composer who shared this view was Leonard Bernstein, with whom Gilbert studied and to whom in some ways he is now – because of this appointment – being compared. His memories are filled with veneration but also a refreshingly clear-eyed perspective. “When I started going to concerts, Bernstein was coming back to the Philharmonic as a guest and was in a down period after his wife died. Although it was still always an event when he came back, he seemed tired. As I got older and he neared the end of his life, though, everyone felt that his music-making was back and maybe greater than ever. Some of the greatest concerts I can remember are of him conducting in that period.
“I had lessons with him at Tanglewood, and it was always an unusual dynamic when he was around. He was so generous and loved to spend time with young conductors – he would stay up all night and chew the fat with us, talking about whatever was on his mind. It was exciting to be around him and you felt that he was very giving. On the other hand, it was also about him. He needed you to give a lot of energy and it took a lot out of you to be around him.” He was looking for disciples, I suggest. Gilbert ponders – he seems never to have found quite the right answer to this question. “He didn’t always surround himself with the kind of student who went on to become great in their own right,” he says, hesitantly. “He was a great teacher. But although there were brilliant students, like Ozawa or Michael Tilson Thomas, there weren’t as many as you might expect.”
For Gilbert, Bernstein represented something that, in his polite, understated way, the new man clearly feels has been missing lately. “Lenny was iconic, and when he was music director of the New York Philharmonic it really was part of the fabric of New York. Obviously it still means a lot for the city and is an iconic institution. But it’s my hope that we can get back to the point where it’s commonly accepted that the orchestra represents what’s best about the city. Even if people don’t necessarily set foot inside the concert hall, they should feel civic pride that this is one of the world’s great orchestras and that it not only operates in New York City but is of the city. I have a feeling that it was more that way back in Lenny’s day than recently.”
It’s not really intended as a criticism of the Maazel years – that would be very un‑Gilbertian – but rather the idea that the Philharmonic has not adapted to modern life the way some other institutions, and indeed other art forms, have. “We don’t have our shark in formaldehyde yet,” he jokes, referring to the controversial Damien Hirst artwork that helped to kick-start today’s thriving visual arts scene. “The challenge for orchestras,” he explains, “is to be flexible in adapting to new ways of presenting and even of conceiving what art is, while remaining true to the idea of what an orchestra is. Because I still think, and I’ve never been accused of being a traditionalist in this way, that what orchestras do has fundamentally not changed and should not change. That is to say, play music, in a hall, for a live audience.
“That said, it’s clearly not enough these days. There’s nothing wrong with the product, with the music and the performances, so it is superficial elements – without minimising their importance – that need to be considered. Should we consider certain venues? Should we stream live on the internet? Should we have our own record label? These things are important, if not ultimately game-changing.”
Aspects of the game have changed though. Music education has been whittled away, I observe, as has media coverage, so that orchestras can no longer take some level of knowledge or even interest for granted. He grimaces in agreement. “Right. So we’re going to try different things. The education department is ever expanding, bringing music to places where they often wouldn’t have the resources to take the kids to the hall, as well as programmes for young composers here and abroad.
“Besides that, the festival model is important to us. Each year segments of the regular season become mini-festivals – in my first year Valery Gergiev will be conducting a Stravinsky festival. That should be a powerful experience and these sorts of things can be destination events. Museums are a big source of inspiration. People are talking about falling numbers and decreasing arts patronage, yet museums are in their heyday right now. You go there and you see families dragging their kids.”
Now Gilbert is more animated, the light of excitement in his eyes. “You know, people look at art and understand that you can just react to it, even if it’s to say, ‘My five year-old can do that.’ Somehow they don’t feel the same freedom to react personally or spontaneously to music. They think that it’s esoteric or requires training to understand. I want to use the platform I’ve been given to talk about the fact that you can react just as innocently as you can to a painting. That’s an important perception.”
Thus New Yorkers can expect to see Gilbert giving short talks and introductions during concerts. He’s also a great believer in building relationships to increase understanding, so Magnus Lindberg is to be the orchestra’s composer-in-residence. Which means what, exactly? “It means he’s around,” replies Gilbert. “The ‘in residence’ part is key. We wanted someone who can write music that is worth hearing, and who is committed to training composers, to education, to advocacy. Lindberg knows the scene, his tentacles are out there, he’s been guest professor at Harvard, he’s an incredibly compelling speaker.”
He’s not American. “There was a faction who wanted an American composer,” Gilbert concedes, “but finally getting the right person was more important.” During his two-year term, Lindberg, explains the conductor, will work closely with composers in a new music series called Contact. “He will become our champion of new music.”
If Lindberg is a new kind of voice for the Philharmonic, another artist-in-residence, Thomas Hampson, is an old favourite. “He’s a great artist,” says an admiring Gilbert, “a real scholar and deeply passionate about the music he sings. He’s been involved in his American song project and is very aware of a body of music, American art songs, that I know almost nothing about. He’ll be feeding that into what we do as well as working with young singers and helping young conductors understand how to work with singers. That in its way is a fresh approach.”
As much as what has happened on the concert platform, the Philharmonic has made news in recent years with its international touring, not least the controversial visit to North Korea. Did Gilbert approve? “Absolutely!”
Is such cultural diplomacy a serious mission for the future? Would, for instance, the Phil visit Syria? Iran? He hesitates, knowing this is sensitive and difficult ground. “I absolutely approve of cultural diplomacy. But we’re not going around looking for political hotspots. I don’t think of the Philharmonic as a political organisation. On the other hand, culture is a very natural way to extend a hand. Music is not burdened with political baggage and I hope people see these offers of goodwill as non-political. The idea is to engage audiences and if there is a crack in the political door that is partly attributable to what the Phil has done, great. But there isno agenda.”
And yet, in the absence of a Washington orchestra of similar magnitude, the New York Philharmonic is the closest thing the US has to an official orchestra. Could not oppressive leaders portray a visit as an endorsement? He doesn’t disagree. “I know of one major US orchestra that decided not to go to Kuala Lumpur because of feelings they had about the regime. There is a responsibility. But if you say by definition that you’re not going to countries where there are political issues, there are very few places you could visit! There is a line over which you shouldn’t go – I definitely agree with that – but it’s also a slippery slope if you start to have a litmus test to determine where you should and shouldn’t play.”
Gilbert says little about future seasons but lets slip a few titbits. Lots of opera in concert: “There are operas that don’t need a big stage production and it’s beneficial for a symphony orchestra to play opera.” One will certainly be Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise – “a magnificent work and it’s appalling that it’s never been heard in New York City”. As for recordings, Gilbert is pushing for an in-house label (though a continuing relationship with DG remains an option) and is planning a Nielsen cycle (his recording of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony with the Stockholm forces is out shortly on BIS).
Alan Gilbert is a thinking conductor. Talk to him about the relationship between maestro and players and he talks to you about “conducting philosophy”. “I try to explain, and it can take years because it’s a complex and subtle dynamic, that the more players can follow the conductor, carefully and unanimously, the more freedom you can have as musicians.”
Discuss the spectre of musicians’ cynicism or burn-out and he reacts with pride: “The best musicians want to be musicians. The better orchestras are better because their musicians are the ones who never lose the appetite and still practise every week.”
Ask whether he wants to bring in other top conductors and he replies with a perceptive question: “What do you mean by ‘top conductors’? The best, or the most famous? I want to bring in the best and forge relationships with them.”
All of which qualities are good, considering he plainly means to be the kind of music director who gets involved, who influences repertoire and artists, and sometimes vetoes them (he talks about delicate discussions with one conductor, known in the industry for selecting difficult-to-market works). As is his equanimity of temper, his refusal to get either overly excited or, one suspects, too cross. All the elements seem to be in place. The first season looks exciting. Now all he has to do is conduct very, very well.