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Maestro on the go: Hectic concert schedule no problem for former Cleveland Orchestra veteran
Elaine Guregian | Akron Beacon Journal | 22 March 2007

Alan Gilbert is a man in demand. After a week of New York Philharmonic concerts, his second such week in as many months, the former Cleveland Orchestra assistant conductor sounded happy but a little tired. A steady ratcheting up of conducting engagements has meant less family time with his wife, Kajsa William-Olsson, a cellist, and their two children, daughter Noemi (almost 3) and son Esra, 18 months, back home in Stockholm, Sweden, where the native New Yorker is music director of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic.

Such is the price of success.

The New York Times noted on Gilbert's first visit of the year, in February, that Gilbert is one of a few "young (or youngish) conductors" with whom the New York Philharmonic is cultivating a relationship as it looks to the next step in its artistic direction. Gilbert has been invited back for two weeks of appearances this season, 2007-08 and 2008-09. Those are also the last three seasons that Lorin Maazel is music director of the organization. Next season, Riccardo Muti and David Robertson are the other two conductors who will lead multiple weeks at the Philharmonic.

At the Chicago Symphony, also in search of a permanent music director, Gilbert has been asked to lead an unusually long series of nine concerts in May, for what the orchestra is calling a residency.

"I've never made any secret of the fact that at some point in my life I would love to see what I could make of an American music directorship. But I just turned 40 and I'm in no particular hurry for that to happen," said Gilbert, who grew up with parents who played in the New York Philharmonic. "For the time being, I'm happy just to have the chance to make music with the best orchestras, which is what I do."

One such group is the Cleveland Orchestra. Gilbert returns this week to lead programs in Akron and Cleveland featuring Cleveland's principal clarinet, Franklin Cohen, in the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. Cohen has soloed in the Mozart more than a dozen times, proof of both the piece's popularity and his own. This time, Cohen will play the work on the basset horn. This version of the clarinet can play four half-steps lower than the usual B-flat clarinet. It's the instrument Mozart specified when he wrote the Clarinet Concerto and a number of his other works.

The Dvorák Symphony No. 6 and Stravinsky's jaunty Symphony in Three Movements complete the program, performed tonight and Saturday at Cleveland's Severance Hall and on Sunday at Akron's E.J. Thomas Hall, on the Tuesday Musical Series. (The orchestra also performs the Mozart and Dvorák on a Friday morning matinee at Severance.)

Since 2004, Gilbert has been principal guest conductor of Hamburg's NDR Symphony. He trades off conducting duties with Christoph von Dohnanyi, his boss at the Cleveland Orchestra from 1995-97, when Gilbert was assistant conductor. In January 2006, Gilbert stepped in at the Berlin Philharmonic to substitute when Bernard Haitink was ill, making his debut with that august ensemble.

Americans break ground
From growing experience guest-conducting European groups and steering his own Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, where he has been chief conductor and artistic adviser since 2000, Gilbert has noticed something interesting about European versus American orchestras. Although the art form started in Europe, current trends in running orchestras, from funding to artistic policies, are starting in America and trickling down to Europe, rather than the other way around.

Take the case of the lecture-discussion concert, which in Cleveland started last year with a limited number of Sunday afternoon events called "Musically Speaking." (The series continues on April 1.)

One reason Gilbert's recent stint with the New York Philharmonic was so busy is that he did what the orchestra calls a "Hear and Now" program, focused on a contemporary violin concerto by Gyorgy Ligeti that Gilbert was conducting on that week's program. It took time-consuming planning among Gilbert, the soloist and a host so that their discussion with the audience could flow naturally.

In a different twist, the Chicago Symphony last season began a series in which a host makes a multimedia presentation about a particular piece, followed by the orchestra demonstrating sections of it. After intermission, the orchestra gives an uninterrupted performance of the piece.

Next season, the New York Philharmonic will import Chicago Symphony host Gerald McBurney's program on Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben, which Gilbert will conduct in concerts March 13-15, 2008. During that same stretch, Gilbert will give Philharmonic "Hear and Now" programs on the premiere of Mark Neikrug's Symphony No. 2.

A conservative bent
At heart, Gilbert said in a phone conversation, he's conservative on the topic of lecture-discussions. He believes music should speak for itself, and a traditional concert format will always be valid. Yet, he is sympathetic to a need to which he sees many institutions making an effort to respond.

"Almost more than actually educating people about music, I think it's important to educate people about how it's OK to respond to music," Gilbert said. The most useful aspect of the programs, he said, may be to make a connection with the audience.

Orchestras are trying hard, Gilbert said. "Everyone's kicking these questions around and coming up with different results. There's some general consensus that something in this direction is worth checking out."