The underrated Alan Gilbert era of the New York Philharmonic

Wed Jun 14, 2017 at 4:19 pm
Photo: David Finlayson

Photo: David Finlayson

When Alan Gilbert began his tenure as New York Philharmonic music director, it was an open question whether the orchestra could become more culturally relevant to the city, beyond its niche, older subscription audience.

In a big, dense city like New York, there is a coterie of people who go to classical music concerts large enough to make it matter. Many of these same people also value art, literature, and the like. The interested reader enjoys Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway, Calvino, Donna Tartt, and Colson Whitehead, the museum-goer is drawn to Bruegel, Caravaggio, Kandinsky, Mark Rothko, and Chuck Close.

But there are still hard lines set in the minds of many classical music lovers, lines that separate a cherished past and an incomprehensible present, marked off almost to the year: 1908, 1913, 1952.

Over his eight-year tenure, Alan Gilbert has firmly, inexorably erased those lines, and made the orchestra relevant to the ongoing culture. He did this in a nondidactic way through the simple concept of seeing classical music as the ongoing historical project it is, and presenting it as such.

His CONTACT and Biennial series of new and modern music are the obvious examples of his embracing the extended body of orchestral and chamber music. Yet these fit into the somewhat questionable specialization of the “new music” ghetto, as if composers making music today never think of Bach or Mozart or Beethoven.

Where Gilbert subtly but effectively made the argument for the modern and contemporary musical experience was in David Geffen Hall, in front of subscription audiences that are any orchestra’s mainstay. He took the simple step of placing the old, the modern, and the contemporary together. He did so unobtrusively without any other argument than their relevance to each other, making sure they were played with the highest level of musicianship. Essentially, he allowed great music to advocate for itself.

In a city and an institution that still suffers the peripheral effects of a long Leonard Bernstein hangover, this was quietly radical and quietly effective. Musicians like Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas are so rare as to be sui generis; superior artists who are also superior explainers, able to distill abstraction into something both clear and personally meaningful to the listener.

Gilbert may not have had the charm or eloquence of those two master advocates. But in his own modest, confident way, and with good humor, he spoke with succinct warmth to Philharmonic audiences, both through words and the baton. He was companionable, and cared about the music, and so by proxy the audience cared. And though his public charisma may never have matched Bernstein, his performances often did so, emphatically.

Gilbert had his weaknesses, specifically an uneven approach to cornerstone repertory, a hazy concept of pre-romantic orchestral music, and a strange disinterest in specifically New York symphonic music of the mid–20th century. (That’s especially odd in that he is the first William Schuman chair in Musical Studies at Juilliard.)

But in the end those were overwhelmed by the strength of his imagination and execution. Completely successful were performances of music Gilbert had a hand in creating; pieces from Composers-in-Residence Magnus Lindberg and Christopher Rouse, commissioned works from Lera Auerbach and Thierry Escaich.

The semi-staged performances of Le Grande Macabre and The Cunning Little Vixen were two of the finest opera productions in this city over the past decade. The brilliant concept and performance of the Philharmonic 360 program of spatial music (Grüppen, The Unanswered Question, the party scene from Don Giovanni) at the Park Avenue Armory. A concert of the orchestral music of Varèse at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2010 that had the Philharmonic sounding more adept and more artistically at home than the International Contemporary Ensemble. And the recent juxtaposition of Schoenberg’s A Survivor From Warsaw and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, which brought a rare visceral life and fresh immediacy to the music.

Throughout, there were excellent performances of the repertory, especially Mahler, Nielsen, John Adams, and a tantalizing glimpse of his ideas on Sibelius, which were wonderful but came near the end of his tenure.

Unless one purchases the series of digital recordings the orchestra made, these will remain memories. What will last, at least a short ways into the future, are two things. The first is the orchestra’s playing, which built on Loren Maazel’s technical refinements and added an aesthetic agility and a consistent expressive commitment—the Philharmonic is again one of the very best ensembles one will hear.

The second legacy is all the new faces one sees at Philharmonic concerts. There’s a subliminal sense of the crowd that develops when one goes to concerts as frequently as critics do, a crowd made up of faces that grow familiar. New faces, younger faces, faces with different colors and styles stand out. The Gilbert years had one growing familiar with the experience of constantly seeing new faces, not just at CONTACT or Biennial events, but in David Geffen Hall. Those faces proved the Philharmonic’s continuing relevance, and one hopes that will continue in the years to come.

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