Alan Gilbertbiographycalendarnewspressdiscographycontactcontact
One On 1: Alan Gilbert Orchestrates Lifelong Dream (transcript)
Budd Mishkin | NY1 | 13 July 2009

Alan Gilbert is about to become the first native New Yorker to be the conductor for the New York Philharmonic.

He has conducted orchestras all over the world, and yet maintains an almost childlike stance toward the idea of practicing.

"I still don't like to study. I'd rather do nothing, or go outside and play," says Gilbert.

No doubt it's sweet music to every New York kid who doesn't like to practice.

"When I first open a new score, it's intimidating every time, every time," says Gilbert. "The only thing greater than my natural sort of laziness is the absolutely pathological, it's not fear, but just the sense that I never want to show up unprepared. "

Watching Alan Gilbert conduct, in rehearsal or concert, is like watching a quarterback surveying the field while dropping back to pass. Ideally, he knows what each musician is playing and going to play.

"If I said that I said that I knew every note in every piece that I conduct, that would be an exaggeration at the very least," says Gilbert. "What I look for when I prepare a piece is the sense that I have a point of view about every moment in the piece, and what, every musician, more or less, should be doing."

Gilbert calls programming the music for the Philharmonic "a privilege." He says choosing either contemporary classical pieces versus classic like Beethoven or Tchaikovsky oversimplifies the issue of trying to get the right mixture.

What he warns against, however, is something he calls "protective, defensive programming -- the Bolero approach."

"Unknown 'X' piece is on the program. Oh, that's probably gonna scare people away; we better put Bolero on at the end," says Gilbert. "And it might work in the short run to get people to say 'Okay I can live through that place; at least there's Bolero on the program.' But the message actually is pretty clear -- 'We don't really believe in this piece, so we have to neutralize it by putting in something we know people are going to want to come hear.'"

Gilbert is hardly new to the New York Philharmonic. For the past decade, he's often served as guest conductor while away from his main gig -- chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.

He says an orchestra should have a unanimity of approach, which then creates the possibility for individual expression.

"I try to set it up that when they're playing the way they feel that they're being allowed to play, they're actually going along with, sort of what I wanted in the first place," says Gilbert. "It's not that I'm tricking anybody, but there's a constant balance."

Gilbert's connection to the Philharmonic go all the way back to his birth. Both of his parents played in the orchestra. His father has since retired, but his mother, Yoko Takebe, still plays violin.

"We have a great, great professional relationship and it is very professional on stage," says Gilbert. "Honestly, I can really tell you that I've gotten to the point where I'm not thinking about the fact that my mother is sitting over to my left during the rehearsals."

Their dynamics off stage is a different story.

"She tells me things that no other conductor gets from an orchestra member like, 'Iron your shirt' and 'Your button was undone' and things like that," says Gilbert.

Even with all of the renovations, Alan Gilbert's new digs at Lincoln Center look familiar.

At Juilliard, where he met one of his predecessors, Leonard Bernstein, he earned his masters in conducting. Years earlier, in high school, he was a violinist in the pre college program.

"I remember the first recital I gave in Paul Hall," says Gilbert. "That was a big deal to give a recital in a hall and to be backstage and know that there was an audience out there waiting to hear you and now I'm just getting this kind of memory of of nerves that I had in this room."

At the time, Gilbert attended Fieldston High School in the Bronx during the week, and Juilliard on Saturdays.

"When I was in high school I always told my teachers that I was the serious music student to try to give myself room when I didn't do my homework and things," says Gilbert. "When I was here, I always told them that I was the serious academic student to give myself room over here when I wasn't prepared for my lessons."

Growing up, Gilbert's house was filled with music. Both parents played in the Philharmonic and gave lessons. Both he and his sister eventually followed the same path, but that was not always a given. In fact, Gilbert says his parents encouraged a wide range of activities.

"The fact is that they never really made us practice," says Gilbert. "I actually have, believe it or not, wished that they had been more demanding on us, to make us work, you know, practice more."

Gilbert went to Harvard, where he says he spent most of his time organizing classical music concerts.

"I would always joke, actually it was really a joke, I always talked about my classes as being my extracurriculars, I was not a very serious student there," says Gilbert. "Even though I always did okay, but sort of just okay."

Gilbert briefly considered becoming a doctor. But he chose music, and studied conducting at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. While there, he had a pretty steady gig as a substitute violinist for the Philadelphia Orchestra, which paid well in more ways than one.

"Playing in the Philadelphia Orchestra as a violinist suddenly opened my eyes to, to a whole world of what it means to play in an orchestra, what it means to conduct an orchestra that I hadn't been able to imagine until that point," says Gilbert.

Gilbert says that early in his career, he hid the fact that he was a violinist in order to be taken seriously as a conductor. But now, he's playing more, and hoping his experience as a violinist benefits the Philharmonic.

"The strings make up, you know, a huge percentage of the orchestra," says Gilbert. "So you know an identity and an understanding of the feelings, the physical feelings that the string players have as they draw their bow across the string I think it really does make a difference in the overall sound of the orchestra."

After positions in Cleveland and Stockholm and guest conductor stints all over the world, Gilbert now steps into shoes once filled by classical music icons, most notably Leonard Bernstein.

He says he wants the Philharmonic to perform in all five boroughs, but says making a connection between the orchestra and all New Yorkers is easier said than done.

"While the orchestra has continued to be great and has meant a lot and is a cultural and civic icon, there has been a little bit of distance that I think people have, have sensed and legitimately picked up on," says Gilbert. "What I really feel is a very sincere hope that we can make connections to the city and mean something for individuals in the city."

Between preparation for the new job and moving his wife and two children from Stockholm to New York, Alan Gilbert hasn't had much time lately to think about the big picture. But it's always there with the capacity to influence a life through music.

"We remind ourselves, that even if we have played Beethoven's 5th symphony a hundred times, there is almost always somebody who has never heard it and its possible it can effect that person in a way that is truly life changing," says Gilbert.