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Gilbert's Home Improvement
Erica Orden | The Wall Street Journal | 29 April 2010

In the seven months that he's been the music director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert has made some changes. The first native New Yorker to serve as the Philharmonic's music director, Mr. Gilbert speaks to the audience during performances and plays violin in chamber concerts alongside other Philharmonic musicians. He's thinking of bringing the Philharmonic to modern venues, like downtown art galleries or the Greenwich Village music club (Le) Poisson Rouge.

Now he's about to try his most dramatic experiment for the Philharmonic so far: fully staged operas. Beginning May 27, Mr. Gilbert will conduct a production of Gy├Ârgy Ligeti's opera "Le Grand Macabre." The production will feature a cast of 11 costumed, soloist singers, who will act out the opera's plot in front of the orchestra musicians, accompanied by the New York Choral Artists, a professional choral group. "Le Grand Macabre" will also feature live-action animation directed by multimedia artist Doug Fitch. In Avery Fisher Hall, a screen mounted above the orchestra will display a live, direct-feed of a miniature diorama, situated on-stage, its figures and scenery manipulated by on-stage artists.

"It will look like a movie that's being created in real time," Mr. Gilbert said. "And I like that. It's a little bit like the great potters from Japan, who would consciously allow a thumbprint to remain on a teapot they made, so you're aware of the hand of the creator. The idea is to be aware of the layers of creation that are happening simultaneously."

Though it hasn't yet been announced, Mr. Gilbert is planning to bring to the Phil the first complete New York production of Olivier Messiaen's five-hour opera "St. Francis of Assisi," which a spokesperson for the Phil described as "a major undertaking." The production is tentatively planned for 2013, and could receive a fully staged treatment.

"The main motivation in bringing it is that I think the Phil could play it brilliantly," said Mr. Gilbert. "But I also feel a duty: I love the piece and I think people should have the chance to hear it. When it's given, people travel from all over the world. It's a little like the Ring," he said, referring to Wagner's four-opera Ring Cycle.

In other words, the Phil, under Mr. Gilbert's watch, is dipping its toes into the territory of some of its Lincoln Center neighbors, like New York City Opera. NYCO general manager and artistic director George Steel said he welcomes the development.

"It hardly constitutes an encroachment on City Opera," said Mr. Steel, who pointed out that City Opera is scheduled to perform concerts during its next season. "I'm crazy about Alan Gilbert, and I think it's overdue for the Philharmonic to do something like the Ligeti," he said.

Mr. Gilbert is truly a child of the company, and of New York. His mother, Yoko Takebe, is a violinist in the Philharmonic. His father was also a Philharmonic violinist (he is now retired). Mr. Gilbert was raised on the Upper West Side, attending the Ethical Culture School, about two blocks away from his current place of employment.

Ms. Takebe said she is proud of Mr. Gilbert, but "in a certain way I miss the opportunity just to be mother and son." There's "a delicate element" to their off-stage conversations about work, especially if Mr. Gilbert vents a frustration. "Alan doesn't tell me everything that he deals with, but he does tell me some things about the orchestra," she said. "But I cannot just talk about it with the colleagues."

Having joined the Philharmonic in September 2009 from Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Mr. Gilbert, 43, once again lives on the Upper West Side, this time with his wife, Swedish cellist Kajsa William-Olsson, and their three young children. Just prior to an interview, Mr. Gilbert murmured cooing sounds into the carriage of the youngest, his seven-week-old daughter, who was parked in the antechamber of his office suite.

Mr. Gilbert said his relationship with his matriarchal co-worker "has assumed its natural place in the grand scheme of things," he said, but "that's not to say that after the concert or after the rehearsal I don't get comments from her that I'm sure no other music director gets," he said, laughing. "She always has suggestions. It could be a tempo that I chose, or the fact that my button came undone on my jacket. She's still a mom."