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A Conductor Puts Himself Out There, Beyond the Parks
Alan Gilbert Shapes a Legacy of Change at the Philharmonic
Anthony Tommasini | The New York Times | 16 July 2013

Conducting the New York Philharmonic in the city parks from a portable pavilion with heavy-duty amplification is hardly an ideal condition for making music. But Alan Gilbert, a New York native, born to two violinists in the orchestra, grew up attending the Philharmonic's parks concerts. For him, conducting these programs is central to his vision of what the orchestra's music director should be.

His enthusiasm for these popular gifts to the city will be on display again on Tuesday night at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, as he conducts the orchestra in the last of this summer's park series, presenting the same program he led when the series opened last week in Prospect Park in Brooklyn: Dvorak' Cello Concerto and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony.

Mr. Gilbert knows that he is the public face of the Philharmonic, which is why he has also conducted many programs for schoolchildren at Avery Fisher Hall. Though he has a modest manner, he has been a galvanizing force at the Philharmonic. Even those patrons and critics who have reservations about the depth and excitement of his performances acknowledge that he has admirably used the opportunity his post offers to be a cultural leader.

Mr. Gilbert has infused the Philharmonic with his passion for contemporary music and reinstituted the position of composer in residence. He started the Contact! contemporary music series, presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Symphony Space. These adventurous programs attract enthusiastic audiences that include gratifying numbers of younger listeners. Still, until now there have been only two programs per season (each played twice), so the series has seemed an offshoot. Next season it expands to four programs, which should make Contact! more integral.

The Philharmonic's profile as a force for contemporary music may be about to expand in a big way. Next season, in conjunction with 10 institutional partners, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Juilliard School, Mr. Gilbert inaugurates NY Phil Biennial, a series that over 11 days in May and June will offer works by some 50 composers. Mr. Gilbert has said that his hope is that this ambitious biennial could become for new music what the Venice Biennale is for art. It just might.

Mr. Gilbert seems mostly to have won over the Philharmonic's administration and board, which have a history of stodginess. But he still faces frustrations, even regarding success stories like his collaborations with the director and designer Doug Fitch.

In his first season, Mr. Gilbert persuaded the institution to let him present a fully staged production of Ligeti's satirical, apocalyptic opera, "Le Grand Macabre," designed and directed by Mr. Fitch, at Avery Fisher Hall. This pathbreaking modernist work, first performed in 1978, had never been presented in New York.

But the administration, nervous that audiences might be scared off, scheduled only three performances. Mr. Fitch's ingenious production included animation and puppetry, and the orchestra's performance was sizzling. All three shows sold out. At the last performance, you could see scalpers hovering outside.

Did this success teach the institution that bold programming pays off? Not really. The next season Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Fitch brought us Janacek's "Cunning Little Vixen." This time there were four performances, all of which sold out.

In 2012, to try something different, Mr. Gilbert presented "Philharmonic 360," an inventive program of works by Boulez, Mozart, Ives and Stockhausen presented in the Park Avenue Armory, where the audience sat in bleachers among and around the scattered orchestra. There were just two performances, each one selling out — another missed opportunity.

And so it was again when Mr. Gilbert ended the season last month with "A Dancer's Dream," a program of two Stravinsky ballets, directed by Mr. Fitch. There were just three performances. Weeks before opening night, you could not get a ticket. (There will be a screening worldwide in movie theaters in September.)

This timidity brings up the most frustrating aspect of American orchestras over all: a deep-rooted fear of jettisoning the weekly subscription series format, or at least cutting back on it. At a time when the percentage of subscription sales is declining, it makes no sense to cling tightly to this outmoded protocol. Why couldn't "A Dancer's Dream" run for two weeks? Even three?

For a sizable segment of classical music fans, however, what matters most is how a conductor fares in the standard repertory that has long been the core of orchestra programming. Mr. Gilbert has drawn some criticism for his work in this area. In certain pieces, his performances have been perceived as thoroughly professional, well executed and intelligent, but uninspired.

This is not my view. I appreciate that there is no interpretive agenda in Mr. Gilbert's performances of the canon. There are lofty conductors who profess a devotion to a composer's score, then indulge in expressive and attention-grabbing displays. In a self-effacing way, Mr. Gilbert brings the respect of a lifelong student to his performances. With a combination of sure technique and enthusiasm, he knows how to get a symphonic work up and running, whether by Haydn, Mahler or Unsuk Chin.

I admire conductors who can convey, to put it simply, how a piece of music goes. Mr. Gilbert is excellent at revealing, without being didactic, the way the phrase-to-phrase layout of a composition fits into its larger structural arcs. His inquisitive mind lights on inner details, harmonic clashes and contrapuntal intricacies, and makes the music leap off the stage.

This season, orchestras everywhere have been playing Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" to celebrate the centennial of this still shocking ballet score. Mr. Gilbert's account at the Philharmonic's opening-night concert stood out for me as bracing, organic and elemental. Instead of making the savage bits more savage, the pummeling rhythms more pummeling, he reminded us, in a gripping, inexorable performance, that the "Rite" is not just an evocation of primitivism, but an astonishing musical composition.

His account of Bach's Mass in B minor, utilizing the full resources of a modern orchestra, was lucid, sensitive and urgent. I have found his performances of Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner symphonies consistently involving and insightful. I learn something when he conducts this repertory.

Still, if to some ears his Beethoven lacks a measure of spontaneity and inspiration, not on a par with the maestros who have conducted this composer's works with the Philharmonic, I don't care. His Beethoven is insightful and strong. And by programming these and other staples alongside new and recent pieces, he presents them in revealing historical contexts.

Besides, the Philharmonic can bring in towering maestros like Bernard Haitink and Christoph von Dohnanyi as guests and turn them loose on the canon. But day to day the Philharmonic needs an innovative, idealistic conductor in charge. At his best, Mr. Gilbert is such a leader.

He may not be Mr. Charisma. Yet he throws himself into his work, even bodily during "A Dancer's Dream." Early on in that production's staged performance of Stravinsky's "Petrushka," Mr. Gilbert, dressed in a satiny coat, leapt from the podium and faced the audience with an eerie grin. He was portraying the magician who controls the puppets that are the story's main characters.

Is Mr. Gilbert ideal? No one would be. But he is building a legacy that matters and is helping to change the template for what an American orchestra can be.
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