Life, even for rising orchestra conductors, can be unfair. Consider one response to Alan Gilbert, new music director of the New York Philharmonic, after he leads Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony in a packed college auditorium in Queens to loud applause. In the intermission crowd, Linda Bergelson looks up and says: “We live half the year in San Diego, and Alan Gilbert just doesn’t have that Dudamel spark.”
Bergelson also admits that she’s just getting to know Gilbert. That’s also true for many New Yorkers, as well as others around the classical music world who are barely acquainted with this quiet-mannered 42-year-old conductor who is the first native New Yorker to lead the Philharmonic. He isn’t the subject of the kind of volcanic media eruption that the 28-year-old Dudamel’s rags-to-raves story has created since the Los Angeles Philharmonic named him its next music director, but Gilbert’s welcoming, boyish face smiles from bright red promotional ads on New York buses.
The orchestra’s new logo -- a circle with a baton-symbolizing line across the middle -- repeats across the top of the ads. It stands for the central role that Philharmonic officials hope this young conductor will have in revitalizing the 167-year-old orchestra. He’s the first Asian American to lead the ensemble, the son of two New York Philharmonic musicians.
When Gilbert is asked about the counterpoint between New York and L.A. arrivals -- he’ll make his debut as music director at Avery Fisher Hall on Sept. 16, three weeks before Dudamel’s in Disney Hall -- he keeps cool. In fact, his response, in a Manhattan rehearsal space before the Queens concert, has the thoughtful care his admirers have come to expect.
He expounds on what he sees as an ill-informed focus on youthful conductors. He speaks about the “novelty” of his experience as a returning son of an orchestra in which his mother plays violin and from which his father has retired. In a tone plain as a piece of Shaker furniture, he praises Dudamel -- “he seems so poised and developed for someone of any age” -- before turning philosophical.
“If you read some of the articles that have been written since Gustavo -- Gustavo is a friend of mine -- and I have been appointed, you’d think there’d never been any young conductors before,” says Gilbert, whose new job was held recently by two much older men, Kurt Masur and Lorin Maazel.
“My predecessor here, Lorin Maazel, was once also 25 years old. Toscanini was also a young conductor at one time. When Zubin [former L.A. Philharmonic music director Zubin Mehta] started in L.A., he was very young. When he started in New York, he was still very young. I think there is a mythical impression that the general culture has about conductors: Someone who is, generally speaking, a man with white hair and years of legendary status. But there have always been young conductors.”
The unruffled impression Gilbert makes seems rooted in a bedrock of certainty about what matters to him artistically. Asked once to name the single composer whose work he’d choose to take to a desert island, he instantly cited Joseph Haydn.
“I stick to it,” Gilbert says, when I express my surprise. “He was a good example of someone who retained a youthfulness throughout his life. He lived a long life. He was called Papa Haydn. His music is witty and quirky and playful, mischievous in a way that is normally associated with much younger people. Invention and enthusiasm for creation is stronger in Haydn, for me, than just about anybody else.”
Rehearsing the Jupiter earlier, Gilbert stopped the orchestra for surgical remarks to sharpen rhythms and relax the arc of a key phrase. He conducted the ensemble straight through long sections of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” which Leonard Bernstein, the most celebrated conductor to lead the Philharmonic -- not counting Gustav Mahler -- once likened to a drug experience. It is his first time taking the orchestra through the Berlioz. A broad-shouldered man in a dark sport shirt, Gilbert moved with an expressive control.
Dictating is not the Gilbert style. “I will not argue with those who have called my style unobtrusive,” he says.
Gilbert’s recent work in New York won praise from a variety of critics. Former L.A. Times critic Martin Bernheimer, writing in the Financial Times, wrote of a performance in May that the conductor “chose an unhackneyed programme (good points for that) and went about it with unflagging authority. Unlike some rivals, he concentrated on conducting the orchestra, not the audience (more good points). He demonstrated a solid technique and inspired splendid responses. . . .” Justin Davidson of New York magazine has called him a “spectacular musician.” The New York Times has described Gilbert’s “demonstrated talent for devising programs that juxtapose new and old works.”
Gilbert faces the challenge of breaking the New York orchestra’s reputation for conforming to the entrenched tastes of its core audiences. “It bodes very well for the New York Philharmonic that you have this young man who not only believes deeply in the canon but clearly has an adventurous spirit,” says Edward Cumming, music director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, who is respected for his ideas about programming. Cumming said Gilbert is making a particularly “bold stroke” by introducing New York to the late György Ligeti’s one opera, “Le Grand Macabre,” a dark piece of what might be called avant-garde commedia dell’arte.
A festival titled “The Russian Stravinsky” will be guest-conducted by Valery Gergiev. A new New Music series called CONTACT, with a smaller ensemble of Philharmonic players, will be curated by the Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, whom Gilbert has chosen for a two-year composer-in-residence stint.
Gilbert was raised on New York’s Upper West Side, where so many musicians live that it’s called Music Gulch. He’s said his violinist mother and father, unlike some musical parents, encouraged him to explore a broad range of interests -- he’s passionate about the visual arts.
College was Harvard, where his teachers included the composer-conductor Leon Kirchner. The 90-year-old artist speaks glowingly of Gilbert as one of his finest students, one with “great insights about music and the physical talent to realize them.” Then came the Curtis Institute of Music.
He has guest-conducted major orchestras in Europe (the Berlin Philharmonic) and the U.S. (the Boston Symphony Orchestra). He’s also done opera, his most prominent success being his Metropolitan Opera debut with the recent production of John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic.” His main orchestral tenure was eight years as chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.
In his debut as music director, he’ll conduct the Berlioz along with a newly commissioned piece by Lindberg and a deeply personal one for orchestra and voice (soprano Renée Fleming will sing) by Olivier Messiaen called “Poemes pour Mi.” The piece is a statement of love for Messiaen’s family.
For Gilbert, the confluence of music and family is an inescapable subject: His mother will be there every time he looks left, toward the first violins.
Gilbert’s mother, Yoko Takebe, is a Japanese American who did her early violin studies in Tokyo and also studied traditional Japanese dance. Gilbert speaks Japanese. Preparations for the orchestra’s visit to Tokyo, as part of a tour set for fall (Hanoi and Seoul are other stops), have already included a Gilbert visit.
“I don’t feel Japanese at all,” the conductor says. “But I feel completely comfortable in Japan. I guess I am having it both ways. But I feel like I grew up here as an American, lived many years in Europe. I am aware of my Japanese heritage. It has contributed a lot to who I am. But this is where I’m from. I’m a New Yorker.”