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Young conductor takes a leap
David Weininge | The Boston Globe | 27 February 2009

Alan Gilbert stands on the threshold of the greatest challenge of his young career. In a little more than six months, the 42-year-old will take over as music director of the New York Philharmonic, one of the youngest conductors ever and the first New York native to hold the position. It's an ensemble that Gilbert literally grew up with: Both of his parents have been violinists with the orchestra. (His mother still is; his father retired some years ago.)

Despite his relative youth, Gilbert - who conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra next week in a program that includes Ives's brilliantly unruly Fourth Symphony - is no podium newbie: He has been chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra since 2000, and has guest conducted widely. In New York, though, he will face the daunting task of revitalizing an orchestra that has come to symbolize the tradition-bound status quo. Comparisons to Leonard Bernstein should be enough to make anyone nervous, but Gilbert seems confident and collected about the trials ahead.

The Globe reached Gilbert earlier in the week at his home in Stockholm, where he had just come in from making a snowman with his 3-year-old son.

Q. Are you at all overwhelmed by the Philharmonic directorship?

A. Let's just say I try not to be. I have a very specific mandate, and the thing that keeps me from going off the deep end or losing my grounding is that I've been asked to be myself. . . . What [the orchestra] needs is, obviously, someone who can deliver good performances, but also someone who brings a point of view and a personal taste to the equation. And the best way for me to provide that is to be sincere. The point is not to be right or wrong, or even to be good or bad. It's to be honest. And that's what's keeping me from freaking out.

Q. Has the Philharmonic lacked that element in recent years?

A. I've admired and loved the Philharmonic for years, virtually my whole life. [But] one thing I've missed at times is the feeling of the personal touch: What is behind the decisions? Who is it that's believing in what happens? And I have nothing but the highest regard for my predecessors. But one of the things the organization has asked me to do is to bring that personal touch, to make sure that any sort of corporate or institutional gleam doesn't take over the human side of the experience.

Q. What's the biggest challenge you face in trying to carry out that mandate?

A. Well, I think it's a musical challenge. How the success of the relationship will ultimately be measured is by the chemistry that we develop together. . . . If sparks happen, if musical excitement happens, that will be a successful pairing. And that's actually a thing that is ignored. People can look at the programming, the atmosphere that the organization puts off. But on the night-to-night basis, in the moment, is it really happening for the audience? That will be the challenge.

Q. You have an ambitious first season that includes the Philharmonic's first-ever visit to Vietnam.

A. I think it's important to bring what we do in New York outside the city, to be an ambassador both for the city and for the country, especially coming on the heels of the historic visit that the orchestra made last year to North Korea. . . . We don't think of ourselves as a political organization in the least. But in the name of friendship and as an offering of what I think is best about the United States, I think it's very appropriate for us to be there and to hold out our hand.

Q. This is the third time you've conducted the BSO. What's your sense of the orchestra?

A. Even though I haven't conducted the orchestra that much, I feel very close to it. I went to Harvard and when I was in college I went literally every week to hear concerts, and I spent a few summers at Tanglewood. It's an amazingly flexible orchestra, and Symphony Hall is one of the great places to play concerts - especially for a piece like the Ives Fourth, which is so reliant on the physical space it's performed in.

Q. You conducted the Ives with the Philharmonic in 2004, your second appearance with the orchestra. From what I read, many people thought it was not only a great but also an unusually disciplined performance.

A. There was something really intense about the rehearsal period for this fantastically difficult program that we did. I think that was the week where the relationship between me and the orchestra really crystallized, and trust bloomed. Because I had to rely on the orchestra and they had to rely on me. I'll never forget that.

Q. I'm sure you get this question a lot, but what's it like to be on the podium and look over and see your mother in front of you?

A. [Laughs] You're right, I do get that question a lot. Of course, in an official situation, to have a family member there alters the dynamic - for me, and undoubtedly for the rest of the orchestra. There's a kind of line that gets blurred by her presence. But all I can say is over the years - and it's possible already to speak about years - it's taken its natural and rightful place. I probably get comments from her that I would never get from another orchestra member, like 'You forgot to button your top button' or, 'Your bowtie is dirty.' But believe me, there's enough to think about that it's possible to let that recede and not take over the situation.