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Alan Gilbert adds his personal touch to New York Philharmonic
James C. Taylor | Los Angeles Times | 6 May 2012

Listening is very important to Alan Gilbert.

It is not surprising for a gifted musician to have attentive ears, but to succeed as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, you have to hear much more than just the music.

Before taking his first leadership post at the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in 2000, Gilbert made his debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and since appearing on the podium of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1998, Gilbert has clearly been listening to what been going on in Southern California.

"I look at the model for what happened in L.A. with Esa-Pekka Salonen with great interest," Gilbert says over coffee in his Lincoln Center office, adding, "I was always very comfortable when I was in L.A. as a guest conductor. I always felt, 'This is the place where what I'm doing is understood.'"

This week, the New York Philharmonic performs in Los Angeles for the first time this century — and for the first time at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The last time America's oldest symphony orchestra performed in L.A. was in 1999, at UCLA's Royce Hall under the baton of its 23rd music director, Kurt Masur.

On Wednesday, the orchestra will be led by the 45-year-old Gilbert who — like the L.A. Phil's Gustavo Dudamel — is in his third year as music director. The Disney concert will be a good representation of the Gilbert era, because it features a new piece by Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg (which just received its world premiere Thursday at the philharmonic's home, Avery Fisher Hall) as well as two established pieces by Dvořák and Tchaikovsky. On Tuesday, the orchestra performs an entirely different program at Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Hall; on Thursday, it brings a mix of the two programs to Santa Barbara's Granada Theatre.

Lindberg is a composer Gilbert has championed since Day 1 of his regime. His first concert as music director began with "EXPO," another world premiere by Lindberg that marked the first time in almost half a century that the New York Philharmonic performed a new piece in an opening-night program.

Gilbert may represent change to many philharmonic listeners — many of them wealthy, conservative patrons who prefer a steady diet of the classics — but he is hardly a radical outside agent of change. He says he doesn't elevate the importance of new work over old, making the point that a Bach festival next season is as challenging for the orchestra as modern music — and to him equally exciting. "Besides," Gilbert says, "to quote Duke Ellington, 'There's only two kinds of music, good music and bad music.'"

Indeed, as he recently rehearses the rumbling, tempestuous opening bars of the Lindberg Piano Concerto No. 2 (which will be performed by Yefim Bronfman at Disney Hall), Gilbert looks less like a firebrand at the podium — with his preferred look of untucked blue polo shirt and jeans — than he does a suburban dad on a weekend presiding over a family picnic.

It's worth mentioning that the New York Philharmonic is in many ways part of Gilbert's family. Both of his parents played with the orchestra (his mother, violinist Yoko Takebe, will be performing on the tour) as did his sister Jennifer, now concertmaster with the Orchestre National de Lyon.

Gilbert is the father of three, and his rehearsal style with the musicians feels like that of an attentive but not domineering parent. Liang Wang, the band's principal oboist, describes Gilbert as having a true commitment to perfection but adds, "He likes making music with another person rather than 'I'm the maestro, and this is the way things have to be — end of story.'" The orchestra's longtime concertmaster, Glenn Dicterow, adds: "I think we've reached a certain balance now. He has trust in the orchestra, and we trust him. And I think you can hear it."

After his 2001 debut, Gilbert made numerous appearances with the orchestra and was quickly seen as one of a few candidates to succeed Lorin Maazel as music director. Even though Gilbert was "family" (Gilbert is often touted, despite living in Stockholm for many years, as "the first native New Yorker" to hold the music director position), there was a widely held desire for mega-maestro Riccardo Muti, who had recently left his post at Milan's La Scala, to take the baton.

Then in April 2007, the L.A. Phil made headlines by tapping Dudamel, a then-26-year-old wunderkind, leaving some in New York with a sense that the its philharmonic had to settle when Muti passed (to later lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) and Gilbert was named three months later. Says Dicterow, who was on the selection committee: "While it was a little surprising maybe to a few, because he was young and hadn't been around a long time as a major conductor, we said, 'Let's take this chance.'… Sometimes you have to do something that is maybe not the most popular thing to do."

By the end of Gilbert's first season, Dicterow and the committee's instincts appear to be proven correct. Any sense of "settling" was scuttled, as the well-received season ended in a big way with a semi-staged production of Ligeti's "Le Grand Macabre." Described as "legendary" by some, the three sold-out performances of the wild "anti-anti-opera" (which had never been staged in New York) seemed to prove to New Yorkers that Gilbert not only had a vision but could also implement it as well. (That "Le Grand Macabre" took place one week after Dudamel's New York debut with the L.A. Phil was met with mixed reviews didn't hurt Gilbert's stock either.)

If the Ligeti performances won over the classical world, Gilbert earned a wider fame in January when during the final movement of Mahler's 9th symphony, he suddenly halted a performance. An iPhone's marimba ringtone in the front rows kept ringing and Gilbert turned and said, "Are you finished? Fine, we'll wait." The audience cheered with approval, then gave him a standing ovation at curtain call and the story went viral.

Dicterow says people like Gilbert because "he's not afraid to challenge the audiences and go at it.... It's been a while since we've had a positive press — at least at home here — and that was a welcome change from what's been happening historically here. So things could be falling into place." Gilbert has not formally extended his initial five-year contract with the philharmonic, but a spokesman said an announcement about his contract will happen this year. (Adding to his profile, Gilbert appears this month in a new ad for Absolut Vodka.)

When asked about his vision for the orchestra's future, Gilbert speaks of civic pride, upholding tradition, and most of all identity: "You know, from observing the orchestra over a long period of time, one of the things I felt was important for a music director, not just me, but any music director was to bring a personal slant, a point of view to the equation."

Experiencing Gilbert in performances, it's clear he has a point of view, but it's also clear it involves his colleagues. Says principal cellist Carter Brey, "He likes for the musicians to get off of autopilot and try ways of playing standard repertoire that are different from what they're used to. And part of that is to be alert to the moment and to listen very intently."

The word "listen" comes up often when other people describe Gilbert, but the conductor admits that when he took the post, he wondered if his more collegiate style would work in the notoriously tough environment that is New York. "I think that we're in a time where people often look for things that are obviously identifiable as interpretation… a kind of in-your-face point of view. That can be very exciting — and if it's combined with real talent and flare can be totally legitimate and thrilling — but it's not the only way to go."

Like Salonen in Los Angeles, Gilbert has combined transparent but meticulous music-making with an intellectual if casual persona. And while there are still critics calling for him to be more daring with his choice of repertoire, Gilbert has effectively freshened up the image of a band that was considered somewhat square.

Two years ago, Alex Ross of the New Yorker wrote about the New York and L.A. philharmonics: "The two orchestras, which once stood poles apart, now seem almost interchangeable." Gilbert says he never asked his friend Esa-Pekka for advice but admits that Salonen's tenure, "was really important — for the L.A. Phil first of all — but also for the whole landscape of orchestral music, because it really showed what is possible: the kind of identity and connection with the community that it's possible to have."

With his expansion of the New York Phil into opera, new symphonic rep and new venues (his Contact! music series takes new music to different neighborhoods in Manhattan), Gilbert has put his stamp on the organization. "I'll go out on a limb here and I'll say that one of the things that I saw — during the years when I was growing up around the orchestra — lacking, was that kind of personal touch, that human dimension. It seemed a bit impersonal and a bit corporate, and it wasn't clear to me always why the orchestra did what it did, why it made the artistic choices that it made … the orchestra needs a face, it needs a human profile."

Gilbert adds, "I like to see the fingerprint of the potter on the cup, it doesn't have to be so perfect. Sometimes a decision is interesting simply because some person made it. It's that feeling of connecting: 'I love this and I think maybe other people can get excited about it too.'"
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