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New old boy Alan Gilbert returns to the NY Philharmonic
Craig Smith | Santa Fe New Mexican | 23 October 2009

Reaching Alan Gilbert when he was Santa Fe Opera music director was easy, especially during summers. Catching up with him at other times was harder, given his eight-year tenure at the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and his many global guest-conducting gigs.

Since Gilbert became music director of the New York Philharmonic last month, conducting his first concert on Sept. 16, you would think that getting hold of him would involve negotiating 16 rather than six degrees of separation. Fortunately, it only took an e-mail to his media representative, followed by a few unavoidable weeks waiting for an open slot on the intelligent, affable, and artistically intense 42-year-old's schedule.

Gilbert and I spoke on Oct. 6 as he was being driven to Kennedy International Airport, where he would board a flight to Asia for the Philharmonic's Oct. 8 through 24 tour. It seemed a very sure bet that he'd bring the firm, fiery, and inspired leadership that made his Santa Fe Opera years so memorable, to appearances in Tokyo, Seoul, Hanoi, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi.

"It's been fun," Gilbert said, when asked how he felt about stepping into the podium-footsteps of Gustav Mahler, Dimitri Mitropolous, Lorin Maazel, Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini, Kurt Masur, and Pierre Boulez. "I knew it was going to be hard work. I wasn't worried about that. But I thought it might feel like it was impossible for me to step outside myself and enjoy it, especially with the enormous range of music we played in the last three weeks." On the other hand, he added with obvious happiness, "I feel so very lucky."

The son of two Philharmonic violinists — his father has retired, but his mother still performs — Gilbert and his sister grew up with music all around them. Both trained as professional violinists, though their parents encouraged them to sup at every kind of creative table as well, including literature and visual art. As a boy, Gilbert often watched and listened to the ensemble from backstage and went on international tours, accompanying his parents.

His SFO debut came in 2001 with Verdi's Falstaff, in a series of performances still vividly memorable for their crisp orchestral cohesiveness, dramatic insight, and supple support for the singers. That was also the year he first led the Philharmonic, beginning a run of 57 guest appearances that led to the music directorship.

Gilbert returned here for Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin in 2002 and became SFO's first music director on Oct. 1, 2003. He went on to conduct Mozart's Don Giovanni in 2004, Puccini's Turandot and Britten's Peter Grimes in 2005, and Bizet's Carmen and the American premiere of Thomas Ades' The Tempest in 2006. He was also one of the conductors at the 2006 50th-anniversary gala. During those years, he initiated a partnership with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in which SFO orchestra musicians (including himself) joined festival artists for chamber-music performances. Gilbert resigned as SFO music director in May 2007 (to the deep regret of many), and in July his New York appointment was announced.

One of Gilbert's final projects in Stockholm was a two-year programming of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, followed by a 2008 recording just released on the BIS label. "It's an astonishing score," he said with a mixture of confidence and awe. "The complexities are incredible. What's amazing is the emotional depth of the piece and the range and power of the various feelings that come up during the work.

"The individual parts are very difficult. To play them together, you have to know the piece very well." And that's exactly why he programmed it for two successive seasons, which conductors normally avoid doing. "I knew that it would be my valedictory program and also knew there was a good chance we'd be able to record it. And for both reasons, it was better to get to know the piece better. I'm really proud of this recording," he added. "I think it has everything. It's so wonderfully integrated."

With two years to work on the symphony, Gilbert and the musicians explored it to a depth not always possible in a fast-paced symphony season. "Coming back [the second year], we felt we'd always known it. It's one thing to rehearse [a piece] up to a performance level: this was so completely different. We weren't dealing with, 'Do this in this passage here; do that there.' We were dealing with managing energy flows, moments of tension, where releases were, high points, low points. Going forward, creating the flow of the work.

"When heading toward live-performance recording, you patch it up, get it all in the can. Then at the final program there's nothing to worry about, and everybody just goes out and plays. In fact, most of the recording comes from the final performance [June 7, 2008].

"It's a psychological ploy; it's funny how it works."

Gilbert has no plans to program all the Mahler symphonies in New York right away, but he does intend to take on the orchestral songs. The 100th anniversary of the composer's death is 2011, and Gilbert sees such masterworks as the Knaben Wunderhorn songs, the Rückert Lieder, the Kindertotenlieder, and the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen as natural outgrowths of a tribute. "It's interesting work," he said. "You realize to what extent the orchestral works were informed by vocal thinking. Mahler's such a genius and a profound human being. There is no limit to the level of depth people can go into it."

Gilbert also thinks highly of Swedish composer Magnus Lindberg, the Philharmonic's current composer in residence. (He memorably participated in the Chamber Music Festival here in 2006.) Speaking of Lindberg's EXPO, a new work, Gilbert said, "It's a very good piece. He's been writing long pieces recently, and I think it was a challenge — I hope a healthy challenge! — to put his creative impulses into a shorter span of time. It's a tautly written piece; he's such a master craftsman. He has a very simple set of ideas he works with within 10 minutes. The elements heard in fast sections become slow music, then slow music gradually turns back into fast. It goes surprisingly far from its starting point, then comes back to a comfortable, well-earned repose. It's a very smart piece."

Gilbert has been music director for less than two months, but critics and commentators say that the Philharmonic is sounding more focused and emotionally communicative than it has in recent years — "waking up" is the term one writer used. Of course, there's always a honeymoon period with someone new. Yet Gilbert is clearly a provoking match for the group, in the best sense of the word. And the musicians, he said, are meeting him more than halfway. "I mean, I feel it," he said. "A lot of people have commented how engaged and how happy the players are. I hear it from my own personal observation, but to hear it from other people in the hall! It's like I say, when you get a group of great musicians all trying pretty hard, it's amazing."

Gilbert has definite artistic ideas: to quote a famous Victor Herbert/Henry Blossom song, his motto might be, "I want what I want when I want it." Yet he exudes collegiality and is willing to persuade and dialogue rather than dictate. "What I think is important for the players is to access their own humanity and make a personal statement," he said. "An orchestra is like a big army. Everybody is a piece in a larger machine. It all has to function well together, [with people] as a unit of an organization. When it really becomes exciting is when people are feeling not only to be team members but contributing and vital individuals.

"It's not the kind of offer you get every day," he said of his appointment. "I did say, 'Let me think about it.' It's a huge step no matter how you slice it, personally and professionally. It doesn't influence only me; it's my wife and kids who are affected in a very profound way. It's a wonderful opportunity and a huge challenge, but I'm really excited, because New York is a wonderful city. There's boundless chemistry in the city and orchestra. There doesn't seem to be many limits to what we plan to do.