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.