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New York awaits a homegrown chief
Ken Smith | Gramophone Awards 2007

Technically, Alan Gilbert may still be on vacation, but that doesn't mean he's not thinking about work. Ever since July, when the New York Philharmonic announced that music director Lorin Maazel will be passing the baton to Gilbert at the end of the 2008-09 season, the 40-year-old conductor has generated considerable attention. That's partly to do with his professional association with the Philharmonic, since Gilbert has conducted the orchestra more than 30 times since his first appearance there in 2001, but mostly to do with his growing up an "orchestra brat", the son of two Philharmonic violinists. Yoko Takebe and Michael Gilbert (his father retired in 2001). Since his first programming meeting with the Philharmonic's administration isn't scheduled for another week. Gilbert is hardly ready to discuss future plans in detail. Still, he's obviously given his inaugural season plenty of thought.

"Just because the orchestra can play anything doesn't mean they should." Gilbert says from his home in Stockholm. when he has served as music director of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra since 1999. "You have to put pieces together in a musical way that makes sense." Given his track record, new music will certainly be a consideration — a hallmark of Gilbert's seasons in Stockholm has been his two-week festivals devoted to living composers — though not necessarily the sole defining mark.

Perhaps the best glimpse can be gleaned from Gilbert's Philharmonic concerts planned for next March, when he conducts symphonies by Haydn and Beethoven alongside Berio's Folk Songs, with soloist Audra McDonald, and Marc Neikrug's Quintessence: Symphony No 2 with Strauss's I. "What I'd like to create, " he admits, "is a situation where all different kinds of music will he able to shed light on each other, and an environment where there's no need for explanation or excuses about any music we present"

This is not so much a change in direction as a change in commitment. Not since the days when composers Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez held the top post at the Philharmonic has the orchestra cultivated a reputation for new works. This may not be entirely fair, since the Philharmonic in the past decade has amassed a sizeable roster of commissions and premieres, not least of which being John Adams's Grammy-winning On the Transmigration of Souls. But for the most part, new works have either been matched with fail-safe repertory or, not entirely ghettoised, at least put safely in modules so that conservative audiences could arrive late or leave early to avoid "the new piece".

"If you look at orchestras that have been successful in presenting new or unusual programming, invariably you'll find an unselfconscious and deeply kit belief within the organisation: Gilbert says. "At the Phil — and in performing groups all over — there's often a sense that you have to sweeten the programme to make it easier to swallow. Whether conscious or not, the message is that new music is a bitter pill, and rather than pretending you're trying to 'slip one by', or that you're 'doing your duty for contemporary music', I think it's better just to programme music you really believe in."

Despite his relative youth. the New York native has spent a lifetime contemplating the orchestral repertory, beginning backstage at the Philharmonic itself. Besides being a regular fixture at rehearsals and concerts, he also played violin and piano. He later attended Harvard College, studying composition with Leon Kirchner and Peter Lieberson. He even briefly flirted with becoming a medical doctor. But even away from home, the lure of music was too strong.

After conducting friends informally at Harvard, Gilbert made the leap after graduation and officially enrolled as a conductor at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music. Still, he played violin more than ever, both in the student orchestra and as a substitute at the Philadelphia Orchestra. "I never really gave up the violin. It's just that conducting gradually took up more and more of my time." he says. He hopes to play chamber music with Philharmonic musicians at recitals once he begins his new job.

Upon finishing his education at Juilliard in 1994. Gilbert was awarded a three-year stint as assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, where his insight and commitment to the orchestra took full bloom. "There's something uniquely compelling about the way people come in as individuals, yet connect as a single organism," he says. "The interesting thing is that even though I grew up around the New York Phil and spent a lot of time with the Boston Symphony when I was in college. I never really understood how the players actually come together, how an orchestra truly functions, until I moved to Cleveland."

That appointment jump-started his guest-conducting career, which led to his appointment in Stockholm, his first "real job", he says. "I had plenty of ideas about repertoire. The part of the job I didn't know, until I actually had to do it, was how to handle the human relationships." From his second "real" job at the Santa Fe Opera, where he became music director in 2003 and served for four seasons, Gilbert turned his love for opera into new professional directions and a fresh outlook he hopes to bring to the NYPO.

"We haven't talked about any specific plans for opera," he says, "but I think that it's important for orchestras to develop musical flexibility from playing with the human voice. And even in New York, with two prestigious opera companies next door, there are plenty of repertory possibilities that won't infringe on our neighbours."

Unsurprisingly for a city used to elder statesmen on the podium, Gilbert's appointment has already drawn comparisons to an earlier youthful. American music director — Bernstein. Gilbert recalls Bernstein only as an older, eminent presence; his own days at the Philharmonic's Young People's Concerts involved Michael Tilson Thomas. "I remember being surprised at my first grown-up concert that no one talked about the music," Gilbert says today. "Not that I actually plan to speak much from the stage, but I do think that music is by nature an inclusive art, and I do want to break down the idea that it's hard to understand if you don't have an extensive background. Go to museums and you'll find ordinary people, by which I mean that you don't need an art degree to appreciate painting. Maybe people are put off by the formality of concerts, by the clothing we wear. What I'd like to get through to people is that these structures are merely superficial."

By that point, he adds, the music should speak for itself. "What's fascinating to me is how certain pieces, when presented in the right way, will shed light on music preceding it," he says, reiterating his earlier point. "I'm not film talking about thematic programming, because not all music works within a thematic structure. Sometimes you have to look deeper for the connection. I think it's possible even in a 'boring' traditional programme - say, an overture, a concerto and a symphony. I'm not saying that would ever be my dream programme, but we should be able to make the right combination exciting."