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In the New York Philharmonic hot seat
Damian Fowler | The Guardian| 7 January 2010

Mahler, Toscanini and Bernstein may precede him, but the New York Phil's new music director Alan Gilbert says he's not fazed

It's safe to say that Mahler didn't have an espresso machine when he was the resident maestro of the New York Philharmonic in 1909. But Alan Gilbert, the new music director of America's oldest orchestra, certainly does. And he makes a damn fine cup of coffee. At 42, Gilbert is one of the prestigious orchestra's youngest leaders – boyish, charming, informal and anything but the classical cliche of the grand old maestro. He's also the first native New Yorker to hold the position and, since he took over in September, he's been seriously busy on and off the podium – including last year's Asian tour, and a European tour which brings the orchestra to London in February. No doubt the occasional shot of caffeine helps.

"There was this supercharged atmosphere at the beginning," says Gilbert, leaning back on the royal-blue velvet sofa in his suite. On the wall behind him, lest anyone forget this orchestra's illustrious heritage, are framed letters signed by Mahler alongside a programme from his opening season – decor selected by Gilbert, who considers the great maestro a hero. And yet, Gilbert doesn't seem too fazed by following in his footsteps, not to mention Arturo Toscanini, John Barbirolli or Leonard Bernstein. "Of course it's intimidating," he says. "But what has stopped me flipping out is having been asked to just be myself."

Certainly Gilbert seems to be at ease in this environment. He grew up with both of his parents playing in the violin section of the orchestra; his mother, Yoko Takebe, still does. When he was a boy, young Alan would linger backstage during concerts, training by osmosis for a precocious musical talent that would take him on to Harvard, the Curtis Institute and Juilliard.

Now that he's in charge, Gilbert is shaking things up at the traditionally stuffy New York Philharmonic. He's infusing the very venerable institution with what's been dubbed Bernsteinian vitality. His inaugural season has already seen more 20th-century and contemporary fare than was usual under his predecessor, Lorin Maazel. And – gasp – even his opening night gala kicked off with a world premiere of a specially commissioned piece, EXPO, by Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg (who is also the newly appointed composer-in-residence). While this may not seem radical, it was a bold choice. The last time the orchestra included a new piece on an opening night programme was in 1962, when Bernstein conducted Aaron Copland's Connotations.

Gilbert is unapologetic about his programming choices and will roll out the Lindberg composition again on the European dates, pairing it with Sibelius's Symphony No 2 – an obvious juxtaposition, he says, because both works are expansive, mostly tonal and have Finnish roots. Another potentially dynamic pairing will be Schubert's Unfinished Symphony with Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces, the melodic grandeur of the classical school giving way to the extravagant expressionism of a thoroughly 20th-century work. "The idea of completing Schubert's symphony in an unexpected way is fascinating," says Gilbert. "Schubert creates a great platform for the Berg because they're essentially connected in spirit."

Such innovations clearly excite the maestro, opening up possibilities to expand the canvas of sound in new directions. "Alan has tremendous openness to new ideas. He's old enough to be experienced and young enough to be a risk-taker," says Thomas Hampson, the Philharmonic's recently appointed artist-in-residence. "The reservoir of his imagination is just starting to be tapped. I think he has greatness inside of him."

Hampson will join the orchestra on its European tour, which will also feature John Adams's The Wound-Dresser, a dark and powerful contemplation of the effects of war, based on the Walt Whitman poem, and perhaps one of the American composer's most significant mid-career works. "Talk about risk-taking!" says Hampson, who relishes singing this anti-war composition. "This is a very powerful and necessary statement to come out of America."

Which brings up Gilbert's other role as head of America's foremost big band, that of chief cultural diplomat. It's not an official role, but the orchestra has been conducting musical diplomacy of its own, supported by the US State Department. In February 2008 (under Maazel) the musicians played in North Korea – the first major American cultural group to visit the longtime US foe. And in October 2009 the orchestra played for the first time in Hanoi. "There is something iconic about the orchestra, and there's a sense of the role that it, and more generally music, can play as a diplomatic force," says Gilbert. "We're happy to accept this responsibility when it feels artistically appropriate for us, but we're not a political organisation." He was delighted to have reached a new audience in Vietnam. "It did remind me there is a commonality and we're all in this together," he says. "And music is a very natural way to make these connections."

Chief cultural diplomat, perhaps, but Gilbert is also a local boy who wants to make the Philharmonic a city orchestra. He had a dynamic introduction to his hometown New York crowd, leading the orchestra in a series of summer concerts in the parks with all the energy of a rock star (albeit in a white tuxedo). Backstage, after bringing Beethoven to 80,000 New Yorkers, Gilbert was throwing off sparks. The hope is to use some of that momentum to lure new audiences with fresh approaches – outreach programmes from Brooklyn to the Bronx and a new music series, Contact, that will consist of world premieres of New York Philharmonic commissions from composers including Nico Muhly, Arlene Sierra and Marc-André Dalbavie.

"There are only two kinds of music: good and bad," insists Gilbert, paraphrasing Duke Ellington. (He's a huge jazz fan.) "I would like to achieve a state of affairs where simply putting something on a programme means it's worth listening to, whether it's contemporary or not."

Some of this new energy may have to do with Gilbert's relative youth, which not only affects his programming choices but also the dynamic with the musicians. "His training is of a contemporary type which places a premium on a chamber music kind of listening and responding and being in the moment," says Carter Brey, principal cellist. "He wants musicians to turn their autopilots off ... so the orchestra can become the ultimate flexible musical vehicle and not just a shiny juggernaut."

Halfway through his first season, Gilbert seems relaxed. And while he's contemplating Mahler scores (he mentions the manuscript of his First Symphony, which features pencil annotations by three generations of conductors – Mahler, Walter and Bernstein), Gilbert is also a dedicated family man. He and his wife, cellist Kajsa William-Olsson, have two children, four-year-old Esra and five-year-old Noemi. Despite his hectic schedule, he took them to the first game of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. For Gilbert this has truly been a homecoming. "Here in New York, people can create their life pretty much the way they want to," he says. "I don't think there's any other place like it."