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Passing the Baton
A new conductor inherits a changed New York Philharmonic
Juliet Chung | The Wall Street Journal | 10 July 2009

The New York Philharmonic—once led by such greats as Leonard Bernstein and Gustav Mahler, and most recently by veteran Lorin Maazel—is about to pass its baton to a lesser-known name in the music world: Alan Gilbert.

For two years, the Philharmonic has been grooming Mr. Gilbert, who will be the first native New Yorker to conduct the country's oldest orchestra, and one of the youngest ever in the post. At age 42, Mr. Gilbert is nearly four decades younger than Mr. Maazel, who led the Philharmonic for seven years and ended his tenure last month. The orchestra is already considering new directions: an Asian tour this fall, with its first visit to Vietnam, and a possible trip to Cuba in October, which would be another first for the orchestra.

Making music will only be part of the job description of Mr. Gilbert, who leads the Philharmonic in its annual Concerts in the Parks series beginning Tuesday. Increasingly, conductors must take a more active role in fund-raising, and as music director Mr. Gilbert will be expected to court new donors along with new audiences, say orchestra officials and board members.

"Let's face it, it's sort of a marketing job," says Paul Guenther, outgoing chairman of the Philharmonic board.

That aspect has only grown more important since Mr. Gilbert was first named Mr. Maazel's successor in 2007. Orchestras around the country are feeling the recession, cutting musicians' salaries and canceling expensive European tours. The value of the Philharmonic's endowment fell by around 30% as the markets plunged, to around $142 million, though orchestra officials say it has been recovering since. The number of subscriptions this season fell several percentage points, though strong single-ticket sales kept attendance at slightly more than 90%, unchanged from last season. For its $66 million budget this season, the orchestra faces a $3 million shortfall and an estimated $3 million deficit next season.

"All of a sudden, the climate is very, very difficult. We were all unprepared for this," says Esa-Pekka Salonen, the outgoing music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a friend of Mr. Gilbert's.

One day this spring, as a makeup artist blotted his nose, Mr. Gilbert prepped to play the face of the orchestra. As the camera rolled, he tried to answer what it was like to conduct at Lincoln Center. "It takes on a bigger dimension than working in other places simply because of the history," he said. Asked for another take, he paused, then tried a more personal message. "I love conducting in Lincoln Center," he said. "It inspires me to reach for more."

Mr. Gilbert, a cerebral figure with a boyish flop of hair, says he's happy to attend to his public-relations duties—as long as they don't interfere with his musical responsibilities. Polished in front of cameras and authoritative in rehearsals, he's a dynamic presence on the podium, at certain moments almost still and at others crouching, tiptoeing, nearly leaping. Mr. Gilbert says he's happy when his conducting style is described as "unobtrusive."

Of his musical vision for the Philharmonic, Mr. Gilbert says he hopes to create a "sonic signature" for the orchestra under his direction—an "abundantly personal" sound that reflects the chemistry between the maestro and musicians. He hopes to have the orchestra play outside Avery Fisher Hall more often.

Guest-conducting the Philharmonic in May, Mr. Gilbert provided a glimpse of the programming critics have praised. He played a symphony, by 20th-century Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu, which the Philharmonic had last programmed in 1986. Mr. Gilbert is known for his interest in contemporary music and for creating contexts for programmed pieces. One night in New York, he offered the rarely heard "Blumine," the second movement Mahler excised from his first symphony, and later played the complete symphony.

Mr. Gilbert is a child of two Philharmonic violinists. His mother, Yoko Takebe, is still playing—putting him in the unusual position of conducting his mother—and his father, Michael Gilbert, retired several years ago. Alan and his younger sister, Jennifer, now the concertmaster for the Orchestre National de Lyon, grew up attending rehearsals and touring with the Philharmonic.

After graduating from Harvard in 1989, Mr. Gilbert attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, substituting as a Philadelphia Orchestra violinist. Later he studied conducting at New York's Juilliard School and worked as an assistant conductor at the Cleveland Orchestra for three years. (He'll return to Juilliard as chairman of musical studies this fall, an unusual setup for a Philharmonic conductor.)

From 2000 to 2008, Mr. Gilbert led the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and guest-conducted in New York and around the world. In Stockholm, Mr. Gilbert was known for creating thought-provoking programs and showcasing modern music. "It's a much better orchestra now than it was when he started," says Thomas Anderberg, a music critic for the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, recalling that sections of the orchestra varied in quality and that there was an uneven overall sound. Now, "it's a good, round sound." Mr. Gilbert met his wife, section cellist Kajsa William-Olsson, in Stockholm. They have two children, Noemi, 5, and Esra, 3.

Mr. Gilbert's selection by the Philharmonic was seen as relatively adventurous. The orchestra has often chosen more-established conductors, although it knew him from his frequent guest appearances and his history as a symphony brat.

Since then, Mr. Gilbert has been "trotted out" to meet key patrons and foundations, says Philharmonic President Zarin Mehta. One evening last month, after conducting the Mahler, Mr. Gilbert circulated at a reception hosted by Leonard Bernstein's children for him and others. In the penthouse apartment on Manhattan's West Side, Philharmonic musicians, officials and families snacked on shrimp cocktails and fried chicken. In the living room, photos of Mr. Bernstein and his family decorated a Baldwin piano.

Ms. William-Olsson, taking a sabbatical from the Stockholm orchestra, said she had been searching for a Manhattan apartment and was uncertain she was ready for the move: "It's a big challenge for me. I've never lived abroad before."

Philharmonic Chairman Mr. Guenther calls Mr. Gilbert's potential as a fund-raiser one of his most exciting attributes, adding, "Some of these guys can't communicate at all verbally. Others have an uncanny ability to talk too long. He gets his message across." As for Mr. Gilbert, he said he believes it's important for the Philharmonic to have a public face, but added, "I hope the actual music-making also provides a rallying point."