By Thomas May
Two years ago, in February 2015, Alan Gilbert announced his surprising decision to step down from his position as music director of the New York Philharmonic. Timing—obviously crucial to a conductor’s art on the podium—also has far-ranging ramifications when it comes to a transition in the leadership of such a central cultural institution.
“I would certainly rather leave slightly too early than slightly too late,” Gilbert told Michael Cooper of the New York Times. Yet the scope of his achievements belies the relative brevity of Gilbert’s tenure. So much so that commentators have already begun referring to “the Gilbert era” as a distinctive period in the long history of the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross last year declared that this era “has been the most intellectually lively in the recent history of the orchestra,” comparing its allure to what occurred under Bernstein and Boulez.
Gilbert reaches the milestone of 50 this month. When he began helming the philharmonic in the fall of 2009—the first native New Yorker and first Asian-American to do so—one much-discussed topic was his relative youth, at 42, in comparison to his immediate predecessors (though Zubin Mehta had been the same age when he took over in 1978, and Leonard Bernstein was a mere 40 at the start of his reign two decades before that).
But instead of allowing his youth to pose hurdles, Gilbert turned that factor to his advantage and developed an engaging sense of camaraderie with the players. Violist Irene Breslaw, who retired last year after a 40-year career with the philharmonic, recalls that Gilbert “came into the job with a lot of energy and fresh ideas that were exciting. It was fun to have the orchestra playing at different venues around the city and connecting to it in new ways.”
Glenn Dicterow, who concluded his 34-year term as the New York Philharmonic’s concertmaster in 2014, notes that “Alan’s own background as a violinist” made him “someone simpatico” for the string players in particular. “They love that because he’s able to speak in their own language. He knows what’s possible to play and what is not.”
Principal cellist Carter Brey confirms the point. Brey first experienced Gilbert’s approach in 2005, during one of the many guest conducting assignments that persuaded the philharmonic’s management to appoint Gilbert music director. “I played the Barber Cello Concerto, a piece that can throw all kinds of challenges into relief. And he ate it for breakfast! I was super-impressed and felt in sync with his way of thinking about music and working with the orchestra.”
Since then Brey has played “at least half a dozen pieces of concerto rep with Alan. It’s a situation in which a conductor has to bring not only his customary orchestral chops to bear but also his sensibility as a listener. Alan has unbelievable radar: a sense of what you’ll do before you do it, which makes it so fun to work with him.” Brey says one thing he’ll especially miss about the Gilbert era is “the easy camaraderie that adds an extra dimension. Along with the musical bond, we have similar senses of humor, like his love of word play.”
The result overall, through Gilbert’s eight seasons as music director, has been to soften traditional hierarchical divisions at an institution notorious for being at times stodgily tradition-bound. It’s no coincidence, Dicterow believes, that Gilbert “always wanted to participate in chamber music. He wanted to keep his hand in it and would play viola or second violin.”
The conductor’s family background has certainly enhanced that sense of collegiality. Since both of Gilbert’s parents—Michael Gilbert and Yoko Takebe—were veteran violinists with the philharmonic, he literally grew up around the orchestra, attending weekly concerts and rehearsals as a child, and even accompanying the philharmonic on tours. Both Dicterow and Breslaw point out they are longterm personal friends of the conductor’s parents. “They were very careful about how they brought their children up,” says Dicterow, who even coached Gilbert one summer. “We knew we were getting someone of great intelligence.”
That familial bond with the philharmonic at the same time “cut both ways,” Gilbert recalls. “It meant that I was very aware of a lot of aspects of how the orchestra functions and how they play. But in a way that made me a bit cautious at the beginning. I didn’t want it to feel as if I’d come in and started breaking furniture.”
Still, Gilbert succeeded early on in bringing about a remarkable change in the status quo. A good deal of attention has focused on how this happened through his programming philosophy and exploration of alternate venues outside the orchestra’s home at David Geffen Hall in Lincoln Center, from the downtown to the vast expanse of the Park Avenue Armory.
Thus the Gilbert era, for many, immediately brings to mind his advocacy of new music by instituting composer residencies and launching the acclaimed NY Phil Biennial (beginning in 2014) on the model of the Venice Biennale and Art Basel. Principal violist Cynthia Phelps praises the conductor for “exposing us to so much contemporary music—and not just by living composers. I have much less fear when faced with a daunting, unfamiliar score than I had in earlier years.” Phelps shared her thoughts as she was learning a brand-new Viola Concerto by the young American composer Julia Adolphe, which she premiered last November. The chance to take on such a project, Phelps says, was owing “to the initiative of Alan Gilbert toward expanding our horizons.
“I will always value the chance we had with Alan to break some boundaries and fearlessly embrace the new-music scene during his tenure.”
Highlights singled out by a wide array of critics have been Gilbert’s sold-out presentations of operas in collaboration with the director and designer Doug Fitch—Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre in his very first season and Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen in the next—which generated enormous excitement. In one of his periodic assessments of the Gilbert era, New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini went so far as to call these projects “productions that have been highlights of my opera-going life.”
Yet in 2013 Tommasini lamented an apparent resistance from philharmonic management to allotting more time to such “bold programming.” Gilbert notes that “this is a tough time for orchestras, and unfortunately things that are different and out of the box are the first things to suffer.”
The new-music series titled Contact! was on the verge of being suspended last fall but was rescued in the nick of time by a group of donors (including the philharmonic’s president, Matthew VanBesien and Gilbert himself, as well as Esa-Pekka Salonen, currently composer-in-residence, and Jaap van Zweden, who will take over as music director in 2018). Whether this is a signal that such programming initiatives will continue in the post-Gilbert years of course remains to be seen.
Collectively, these efforts reflect Gilbert’s ideas about how orchestras need to rethink their mission and “what they mean for the community they serve,” according to the conductor. “The traditional format of concerts, with its formality and ritual, is a perfect formula, but I think it is no longer enough for orchestras to do that. The idea of outreach is not a new one, but until not so long ago it was considered an ancillary project. Now I think we are in the next chapter of that development.”
Similarly, Gilbert has been imparting a message to the musicians by “loosening the conservative definition of what orchestras have been and developing the philharmonic into a new orchestral paradigm that makes direct connections to other institutions in New York, and around the world for that matter. It changes the meaning of what it is to be a musician for the players themselves and for the public who observe and listen to our musicians.”
Opera and the larger issue of musical storytelling clearly occupies an important place in Gilbert’s aesthetic: “I’m crazy about the whole world of opera and how to bring that element into the mix. Even a non-programmatic piece can benefit from assigning human emotions, from figuring out where the narrative is taking you. My hope is that this narrative aspect will become more and more part of everything that the orchestra does. I think that is ultimately what music is about. For the musicians it means going beyond the dimension of simply realizing their parts technically—which is of course thrilling at the philharmonic, as this is one of the most musical orchestras I know—and becoming that much more conscious about what they are playing.”
The career of Timothy Cobb links the spheres of the opera house and concert hall. Prior to his appointment as the philharmonic’s principal bass in 2014, he had played that role in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. “The first time I worked with Alan was in John Adams’ Doctor Atomic,” which marked Gilbert’s Met debut in 2008. One of the key scenes includes a tricky double-bass obligato, says Cobb: “You need to have a conductor who trusts you, and he was terrific. For me moving to the philharmonic as principal bass has been the most natural thing in the world, because Alan has so many of the same qualities as James Levine: driving rhythm and a comprehensive knowledge of whatever score is in front of him. He knows a dizzying amount of music and always manages to get what he wants.”
Cobb believes Gilbert’s string background is a powerful asset. “He is a musician who still plays very good violin, so he’s conversant with the challenges we have. He knows we’re good and he knows what needs to be there to make it occur. In almost any piece of rep we play, when I come to a moment I view as pivotal, I’ll look at Alan and, sure enough, he’s already thinking the same thing and smiles as we make eye contact.”
Along with addressing the issue of the philharmonic’s identity and role in the 21st century, Gilbert returns to his relationship with the musicians as he looks back over his years on the podium: “I’m really proud of the commitment and the obvious passion that the players are bringing to their music making. I feel a rapport with the musicians and a connection with the audience and get to enjoy music on a daily basis. I feel like the luckiest conductor in the world.”