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The Maestro's Beethoven
Ralph Gardner Jr. | The Wall Street Journal | 17 October 2013

There is this borderline pretentious–or just over the border–parlor game I play with my more erudite brother, and occasionally with other friends. We argue about who is the greatest painter who ever lived. Michelangelo or da Vinci, for example. You can do it with writers and composers, too. And I suppose if I knew more about physics, astronomy or chemistry, we could have those discussions as well.

Obviously, there isn't a right answer. The beauty of human achievement is that at its core it is a celebration of individual creativity. When we praise great artists, it isn't for their similarities but their differences; that spark that makes them unique, often revolutionary and, in short, incomparable.

Nonetheless, there are greater and lesser artists. A few rise above the rest. They teach us to see or conceive of things in new ways. Even though there is no right answer to who is No. 1, you might be able to winnow down the list to a top 10. In any case, the exercise is a heck of a lot more stimulating and life-affirming than, say, debating the dysfunction in Washington.

I found myself playing this "best ever" game in August when Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony" came on the car radio. I was upstate, and it was being broadcast live from Tanglewood; the work traditionally closes the music center's season.

As I listened to the first intimations of the "Ode to Joy" melody in the final movement and the hairs started to bristle on the back of my neck, I wondered whether there was any doubt this was the greatest piece of music ever written.

Certainly, if I encountered extraterrestrials intellectual light years ahead of us, I'm confident I could whip out Beethoven's Ninth, say, "Listen to this," and they would be, like, "Wow!"

So when the opportunity arose recently to discuss the symphony with Alan Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic's music director, in the midst of five performances the orchestra gave of the work between Oct. 3 and Oct. 9, I decided to try to engage him in the best-ever game.

I didn't come right out and ask him whether he thought Beethoven's Ninth ranked No. 1. It had something to do with my not wanting to sound like a dolt. And also because the maestro is such an energetic, animated and enthusiastic presence that once he got going, it was simply a pleasure to sit back, listen and learn.

"There's something about the piece," he said as we sat in his handsome, if not especially spacious, office in Avery Fisher Hall. "Even for people who know it and know what to expect, it sneaks up on you.

"It's more emotional than you think," he continued. He meant the experience of playing it—his, the orchestra's—and the audience's reception of the work. "People have been saying that this week."

"Another thing we've been talking about backstage is the comfort the work can bring in chaotic times," Mr. Gilbert said, mentioning the New York City Opera filing for bankruptcy and the federal government's shutdown. "The Ninth is a stabilizing presence. There's been a very strong sense of community in the room. It's been very moving. Orchestra members tell me how many members of the audience end up in tears by the last movement."

There is a little joke among the musicians, he confided, as they file offstage after performing one of the great masterpieces of the classical repertory. "Still a good piece," they say while winking at each other. When it came to Beethoven's Ninth, there was an especially knowing aspect to the observation.

"What Beethoven was trying to do was so different than anything that had gone before it," Mr. Gilbert explained. "I'd argue anything that followed since. He was trying to say something universal about humanity. In fact, there is an ambition to express something that hadn't been expressed in symphonic music before.

"What Beethoven did was set the bar," he added. The composer is the reason "that Mahler in his symphonies tried to say everything there is to say about life. Brahms couldn't write symphonies for a long time because of the footsteps he heard behind him. This was literally history-changing music."

I raised the Sixth Symphony–the Pastorale–as rivaling the greatness of the Ninth. Mr. Gilbert agreed. I mention this exchange for only one reason: The conductor's consent felt like having Roger Federer compliment my backhand.

"The Sixth was fresh, too," the maestro said. "He was also painting pictures of nature with that. The Third, the Sixth and the Ninth."

He explained that one of the liabilities of leading a major symphony orchestra with a demanding schedule is that there isn't a lot of time in the day to learn new stuff. "You have to know a lot of repertory," he said. Nonetheless, he added: "I try to wipe the slate clean and not assume anything."

"I've done the Ninth a number of times," he went on. "I got a new score. It didn't have any of my previous markings to trigger associations or thoughts. I don't know if I changed, but I found a new relationship with the piece this time around."

He lost me at that point, talking about Beethoven's "problematic" metronome markings ("I felt it feels very comfortable to go with what he put down") and levels of rhythmic pulse–the ways beats are grouped together. "I started to see the bigger shape with much more clarity than I did before."

Mr. Gilbert, 46 years old, grew up in Manhattan. He attended the Fieldston School before heading to Harvard. In high school, he briefly considered becoming a doctor: "A friend who was a surgeon let me observe operations at Roosevelt Hospital."

"I kept circling back to music," he added. "It wasn't really a choice. It chose me."

His parents also might have had something to do with it. His mother, Yoko Takebe, is a violinist with the Philharmonic. His father, Michael Gilbert, also a violinist, retired from the orchestra in 2001. I wondered what it's like to occupy a stage with one's mother, and whether she critiques his performances.

"It's more like we share in the experience," he explained. "She's playing well. It's going well for me. We're both able to have a good time."