Alan Gilbert, new NY Phil conductor, comes home

Brittni DeHart

From The Associated Press

As a youngster, Alan Gilbert had a unique view of the New York Philharmonic. His parents were violinists in the orchestra, and he and his sister would accompany them on international tours.

He would stand backstage and watch, astonished at how drenched in sweat the conductor became.

After studying at Harvard University, the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute, and spending eight years as music director with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, Gilbert has come home. On Wednesday night, before a nationally televised PBS audience, he takes the baton as music director of the New York Philharmonic, stepping up to a podium once occupied by such titans as Mahler, Toscanini and Bernstein.

At 42, he will be one of the youngest music directors in the 167-year history of the nation’s oldest orchestra, taking over at a time when classical music institutions are trying to win a younger audience and precious dollars.

He is also the first native New Yorker to become its music director. His mother, Yoko Takebe, is still in the orchestra. His father, Michael, retired in 2001, the year Gilbert made his first Philharmonic appearance as a guest conductor.

In an interview at Avery Fisher Hall, Gilbert spoke of the challenges he faces during his five-year contract, his commitment to breaking new ground in an old institution and leading an orchestra that includes his mom.

AP: It must be surreal to be taking over.

Gilbert: To be music director wasn’t a dream that I really dared to have. … It’s one of the most exciting conducting positions in the world and I think anybody would be excited to have this opportunity. For me personally, to have grown up around the orchestra, to have had the orchestra define essentially what orchestras are and what orchestras can be means it has an extremely important special place in my life and my musical makeup.

AP: As a child, you handed out passports to the musicians during international tours.

Gilbert: It was fun. I knew a lot of the musicians. … I loved going on tour. I remember hanging out backstage. I remember being amazed when Zubin (Mehta) came off backstage and took off his jacket. I couldn’t believe how wet it was. I didn’t realize that you sweated so much. Of course, now I know first hand.

AP: What’s it like to have your mother in the orchestra?

Gilbert: I honestly don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. When I’m conducting, believe me there’s enough to worry about without having to add to that. … I do get comments. I’m not trying to be funny or facetious, but she does tell me if she thinks that I need to tie my tie or make sure that my shirt is properly ironed or things like that.

AP: She doesn’t bother you about your interpretations?

Gilbert: She does say things that are helpful all the time. She also understands that I need to do it on my own and take my risks and take my chances.

AP: You are taking over this position held by some of the biggest names in music and at a time when the economy’s hurting and things aren’t going so well for arts institutions. How nervous do you feel?

Gilbert: There’s an obvious challenge in trying to develop an orchestra that’s already developed like the New York Philharmonic. … Technically, the orchestra plays wonderfully. There’s an enormous amount of understanding and insight as to what music can express. But I’m looking for very clear articulation and differentiation between the way the orchestra plays different pieces of different composers. What I think the challenge will be is to find our unique chemistry. …

I think what people … deserve in hearing an orchestra like this is the sense that it really matters, and that it’s a matter of life and death, and that every note the orchestra plays is infused with an honesty and will to express something that’s very honest and open and personal.

AP: Your opening night program — Berlioz‘s “Symphonie Fantastique” plus a world premiere by Magnus Lindberg and Messiaen‘s “Poemes pour Mi” — is almost shocking for a nationally televised gala. Ultimately, the big question is how does the audience receive it and other new works you plan to present?

Gilbert: Sometimes you don’t know about the piece’s longevity and meaning in the long run until long after they’ve been premiered. But I will say that literally every single piece that we program is presented with honest belief and sincerity. … I think even those people who might think that they want to hear only Tchaikovsky all the time will find that their Tchaikovsky or their Beethoven is enhanced or is illuminated because of the combinations and contexts that we present those acknowledged masterpieces. It’s all part of the big picture and I think everything will shed light on everything else.