Beethoven in background
Alan Gilbert: And I think if we remember what Beethoven's audience must have felt like when they were hearing Beethoven for the first time, I think that can instruct us as to how we can listen to the music of today. And I think to remember that there is something fresh always to find in music.
Jo Reed: That was Alan Gilbert who began his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic in September 2009. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works. I’m your host Josephine Reed
Dynamic and quietly bold, Alan Gilbert has already put his stamp on the New York Philharmonic with several innovations including, creating an annual three week festival; launching a series focused on new music called Contact; and introducing the positions of a composer in residence and an artist in residence to the New York Philharmonic. But, what’s most striking about Gilbert is the connection he forges with the music, the orchestra, and with the audience. His aim is to create music programming that tells a story.
As his first season comes to an end, it seems like a good time to catch up with Alan Gilbert. I began our conversation by asking him about a concert I saw him conduct about a decade ago…
Jo Reed: I had the best concert experience of my life with you, in Baltimore. There was a Beethoven festival, Beethoven marathon that you conducted, that you probably don't even remember.
Alan Gilbert: No, no, no. I'll never forget that. That was one of the great experiences I've had in the concert hall. It was a recreation of the so-called Beethoven Academy of, I think, 1803 or something like that, and it was a recreation of a concert that Beethoven actually gave, in which he presented a whole slew of new music. At the time, it was hard to put your head around this, but it was a contemporary music concert, and there were the world premieres of the Fifth Symphony, the Sixth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Choral Fantasy. He played solo piano works. It was just an incredible amount of amazing, amazing music. And for it all to have appeared in what essentially for us would be a double-length concert, for him it was just a marathon concert, although I think they had concerts that were that long, it's just incredible to think about. And the audience was so excited. The way we did it practically is we divided it in half and did half of the program one week as a subscription week, half of the program-- half of his extended program-- the second week as a subscription week, and then we put them together and we did one long marathon concert on, I think, a Sunday afternoon.
Jo Reed: It was a Sunday afternoon.
Alan Gilbert: And everybody was very curious. It was a long, double-length concert with, I think, three intermission, and nobody was quite sure how the audience would respond, how long they'd be willing to sit, whether they were just going to hang out or leave or give up. And I think they counted-- we asked the ushers to count how many people left. I think eight people left, one of whom was the critic. So I love that story.
Jo Reed: Well, as an audience member, it was remarkable. I mean, I worship at the altar of Beethoven. So we had that going on.
Alan Gilbert: Who doesn't, who doesn't.
Jo Reed: But I had never seen an orchestra respond to a conductor the way that they responded to you. And there was this one moment in the Fifth Symphony. I will never forget it. The third movement, where the cellos are really going at it, the two cellists sitting in front were playing and looked at each other, and just grinned from ear to ear. I was sitting really close, so I could see that, and it was a wonderful moment.
Alan Gilbert: You know, I hate to tell stories about myself, but I will report that I felt this kind of special connection with the orchestra as well that week. It was an unusual chemistry. And I remember that one particularly crotchety violinist spoke to me before the week saying, "Oh, do we have to play another Beethoven Fifth Symphony?" And I said, "Oh, it's a great piece. Let's see what we can make out of it." And he was one of the musicians-- and there was actually a line of musicians after that concert coming to my room to say thank you, which doesn't always happen-- and he said, "You know, I have to tell you, what a fantastic piece. I'm so glad we did this. It was really a great experience. I found things that I had never seen before in the piece." And that memory also has really stuck with me, because it was I guess a measure of the success of that particular week, but it's also a reminder just how great these pieces are that we're playing again and again. It's possible-- and for an orchestra musician who has the grind of dealing with the schedule that comes week after week-- it's possible to forget, and it's possible to actually go into a kind of routine mode. But at crucial moments, it comes back to you: We're so lucky to be doing this. This is really the greatest music in the world, and there's always something new to find in it, and they're true masterpieces.
Jo Reed: But I would think that's part of your charge as director of the Philharmonic. You certainly-- you're very committed to doing new work, but you also have to reach back, and I assume you want to, to play the acknowledged masterpieces. But you want us, I would assume, to hear them with fresh ears in some ways.
Alan Gilbert: I think that's exactly right, and it's a really good way of putting it. For me, making programs is one of the most exciting things I do, because it's about creating the most advantageous context in which to hear the music today. And that's constantly changing, and I find it amusing when people talk about my proclivity for new music, towards new music, and how I approach programming in a radical way. Because I don't think of it that way at all. The New York Philharmonic plays Brahms and plays Tchaikovsky and Beethoven and always will and always should. But it also should mix in the music of today and try to show how there is a continuum, and music is music. And the interesting thing about creating new combinations is that pieces are heard in a new way. This concert that you referred to earlier was all Beethoven. I think all Beethoven concerts are great. But pairing Beethoven with a composer of today somehow can create this kind of fantasy and sense of exploration and freshness and newness that you've also been talking about, which I think is important to remember, because music really has the capacity to be new and fresh and meaningful for people every day.
Jo Reed: Well, I think it's easy to forget that music is created in a context. People live in a particular world, and the music comes out of that. It transcends it often, but it comes out of that.
Alan Gilbert: Absolutely.
Jo Reed: And so it's like a conversation that's continuing.
Alan Gilbert: Absolutely. Which is why there's been a very important and fascinating movement, the so-called performance practice, original instrument movement, which some people claim that the goal is to recreate the conditions and the instruments and the style of 200 years ago or 300 years ago. And it's a noble ambition in a way, but it can leave out the context of today. Because no matter what happens, even if we try to recreate those instruments and those bowing techniques and those stylistic choices of phrasing, still it's in the context of what we know today and what we're using to hearing today. So everything is going to be different. So while we can learn a lot from such intellectual endeavors, finally we can't forget that no matter what, it's still about today, and even if we're using what we know from scholarly research, still what's important is how the music transmits to the audience of today, and based on what they know.
Jo Reed: I want to ask you a very obvious question, which is: I'd like you to explain what it is that a conductor does?
Alan Gilbert: I wish that were an obvious question. At least the answer is not obvious to me. How can I answer this? Well, let me approach it this way: what I like about conducting is that it calls on so many different faculties and different capacities. It's challenging in such a myriad of ways. It's obviously a physical activity. When you watch a conductor, you're aware of the movements, the gesture. And the gestures ideally should have something very, very strongly and closely to do with how the music goes. I would say that on a very basic level, the conductor decides the tempo and indicates the tempo in a way that everybody in the orchestra can read it so they can play together. If you can imagine a group of people in a room, if you tell them, "Okay, everyone say the word 'stop' at the same time," it would be very hard to do. If someone gives a signal and says, "Okay, I'm going to move my hand up, and then I'll move it down, and when my hand comes back down to where it started, that's when you say stop," there's a reasonable chance that it'll be pretty close together. That's more or less what a conductor does in terms of showing time. "This is where this beat happens. This is where this beat happens." Musicians have music in front of them that shows where there notes fall in relation to the beat. If the conductor shows that beat, then they should be able to play in a way that actually coordinates with what everybody else has to do. But it's a lot more than that. That's just the first layer of what a conductor does. There's the idea of interpretation. I mean, that's not an obvious question, but it part, it’s a very important part of what a conductor does, is to have an interpretation. What does that mean? That means, I think more than anything, to have a point of view about how the music feels. A lot is suggested by the music, and there's an inherent spiritual quality to music—certainly the best music—but all music is conceived by humans, and is informed by human emotion and spiritual sense. And the character that is conveyed by the orchestra is a highly complex element, but it is clearly influenced by the point of view that the conductor brings to it. So if the conductor wants to emphasize—and this is a very elusive thing—and call it, at one moment, the optimistic side of things, or the depressed side of things, or the happy side of things, or the elusive, searching side of things. These things can be transmitted, and something in the way the conductor deals with the orchestra can highlight or create an atmosphere for the music-making. It's a two-way street though, because the conductor is also influenced by the orchestra, and the moments that I've found the most successful and gratifying and exciting in conducting are those in which I couldn't really say where the spirit is coming from, only that it's extremely vivid. It's a question of one side influencing and inspiring the other. And ultimately, when it really clicks, when it really works, there's a true synergy, and the music takes over, and it's as if suddenly everyone is really tapping into the infinite possibilities and the infinite potential of the music. How the conductor deals with the orchestra can make that more or less likely to happen, and that includes the rehearsal, how you talk about the music, how you tap into the energy and enthusiasm of the orchestra. It's all a very complicated process. The conductor tends to lead the rehearsals and say, "Okay, here we're going to go for this. Let's not play too loud here. If you could play this with a slightly more spirited articulation, it would help the character. If you could play this in a way that doesn't give it away just yet, just save your energy so that we can really go for it five measures later." There's a way of setting it up so that finally when it takes its course, when it runs, it kind of can go in the most natural way. That means conducting well in the moment, but also setting it up so that there's the possibility of its really taking off. I'm kind of talking around the subject, because it's very difficult, even though it's something I do all the time and something I've thought about for many, many years, to really pinpoint how it works. But I think that's why it's an exciting profession.
Jo Reed: You grew up here at the New York Philharmonic. Both your parents played in the orchestra, and you were the kid hanging out backstage.
Alan Gilbert: I've had a long history with this orchestra. There's still members of the orchestra who were playing when I was a little kid, who remember when I was helping to hand out the passports on the tours and when I was playing with my Rubik's Cube on plane flights and, wow, even before that, Mattel Electronics football. I was around the orchestra, and I had a special opportunity as a kid to listen to concerts, often from the audience point of view, but very, very often as well backstage.
Jo Reed: Your mother is still a violinist with the Philharmonic.
Alan Gilbert: She's still playing.
Jo Reed: And how is that, conducting your mother?
Alan Gilbert: It's definitely an unusual situation. I'm not aware of any other case-- I'm sure it happens but a case in which the music director actually has his mother playing in the orchestra where he or she is working. And it's changed. When I first conducted the orchestrathat was almost 10 years ago. I came as a guest conductor, of course. I was more aware of it than I am now. I mean, when I speak to interviewers, I'm never allowed to forget this, so it's always a question that comes up.
Jo Reed: Sorry.
Alan Gilbert: No, it's fine. It's a natural question. But the way I answer it is-- well, it happens to be true. It's that I was more aware of it when I started conducting here, because it was strange. I mean, if you have your mother well, in any situation that you're dealing you tend to be aware of that, and she was sitting immediately to my left. Frankly, now I can go through a concert or a rehearsal or a whole week and not have it really register as an element that I have to devote emotional energy to. And I think it's a good thing because there's plenty to worry about other than that. It's difficult enough to conduct and keep everything clear in my head without having to contend with that. And also it means that she's doing a really wonderful job. I can imagine if there were an issue with her playing or if she were a difficult colleague or if she somehow stuck out in an unnatural way that would become my problem in my capacity as the boss. But she's a consummate pro, and shows up for work, and is well liked and respected by her colleagues. And so it's just there.
Jo Reed: Well, as you say, you grew up with this orchestra, and you knew it very well when you took over as music director. You were a guest conductor any number of times as well. But still coming in as the new music director, did anything surprise you? Did you learn things that you had no idea were so before?
Alan Gilbert: I think I'm learning things every day, and that's one of the most wonderful aspects of the job, the fact that it's an eye-opening, revelatory experience constantly. That having been said, it's hard to say what exactly it is I'm learning. Sometimes I'll learn something-- a percussion player will say, "Oh, this is how this instrument works." And I'll say, "Oh, I've never seen that instrument." I mean, there are mundane facts that I learn. But more than that, the sense of how to deal with the orchestra and the qualities that are called on in order to execute the job well. Those are harder to define and they're harder to describe even, but I always have the sense that I'm learning something. I think I came pretty well armed to do the job. That is to say that when you come into a new organization as a leader, one of the first things that has to happen is you have to get to know the core spirit of the organization. And I think-- I hope I'm right-- I think that I actually came in with a pretty intrinsic understanding of what the Philharmonic is about, simply from having spent so much time with it over the years. It's a really, really challenging job, and there are many, many elements that cross my desk and that I have to deal with. But it doesn't feel like a foreign land to me. It feels like I'm standing on ground that I'm used to of course in a different capacity now. I think a measure of that is I've actually been able to really enjoy myself this year. That was kind of the unknown quantity. I mean, I had to come into the job assuming that I could do it reasonably well. I mean, if I came in thinking that I couldn't do it, then that wouldn't be a healthy or easy situation. I thought I could probably do okay, but I didn't know whether I would be able to enjoy it. And I've been able to enjoy it in fact, and also on a kind of self-conscious level, I've enjoyed the fact that I've been able to enjoy it. It's incredibly fun to make music with this group of people, and there's an amazing spirit of wanting it to be the best possible level. And that amount of energy that comes with this kind of ambition that every musician has in the orchestra really feeds, well, me specifically but I mean, it feeds the whole situation. There's just an amazing aggregate of enthusiasm.
Jo Reed: You've embraced and created some innovative programs including a new music series called Contact.
Alan Gilbert: Yeah, I just did my first Contact Concerts this last weekend, so it's very fresh in my mind and I'm very excited by it. Contact is both the name of a series of concerts that we've started of new music, but it's the name we've given the new music ensemble made up of musicians from the orchestra. And this year we did two sets of concerts, two different programs, each presented twice, and the premise of the programming was to have all world premieres, which I thought was fabulous-- just to create seven new pieces, identify seven composers. I worked with Magnus Lindberg, our composer in residence, to identify the composers we wanted to commission, and we deliberately chose a few well known, established composers, and a few relatively unknown, untested young composers. And they came up with three amazing pieces. But what really was exciting was the atmosphere around the concerts. We had two sold-out concerts, one at the symphony space on 95th and Broadway, and one at the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium in the Metropolitan Museum. Different crowd, but both very enthusiastic, and the conversation in the aisles during the intermission and after the concert—I hung out with the audience in both places—was really fresh and really engaged, and there was a kind of connection between the players and the audience that I would love to see exist in a way in the big hall. It's harder in the big hall here, and I think the big hall is maybe not the appropriate venue for this kind of concert, but this kind of sense of shared adventure was exactly what I was looking for, and the fact that the houses were full both nights-- makes me feel like we're really onto something, that there's going to be a momentum, and there's a real interest in this kind of thing. I knew there would be, but to have it happen this soon-- any time you institute a new program, it takes time for it to take root and develop. And for our second set of concerts already to be sold out and for people to be talking and writing letters the way they have been, saying how exciting it is, it's really very gratifying.
Jo Reed: And what about the age range of the audience? Did you notice that it was quite broad?
Alan Gilbert: It was quite broad. I think people noted that there were a lot of younger people. There are of course young people in our audiences all the time, but there seemed to be a clear group of youngish concert-goers. But even more significant in a way was the range of the ages. It wasn't only young people. And there was a woman who lives in my apartment building, and she came up to me and she said, "You know, this is the kind of concert I really want to go to. I subscribe to the Met. I'm a pretty traditional music listener. I love Brahms. But I've heard Brahms so many times. This was fantastic, and I was so happy to see that I wasn't the only gray-haired person who was excited about this music." And that just made my day.
Jo Reed: You also do a lot of outreach to public schools in trying to bring students into the concert hall to listen to classical music, to have it opened up to them.
Alan Gilbert: I think that the educational outreach component, or components, of what orchestras do is becoming increasingly important. A lot has been made of the diminishing level of activity and support for arts and music in schools. It's practical, but it's also in the spirit of being what you can be that orchestras have picked up the slack. And the New York Philharmonic in particular is very active in trying to make its resources available to and devote them to teaching people about music, and also frankly developing the next generation of audiences. I'm very proud of the programs that the Philharmonic has already been doing. I came in as a new music director saying, "Okay, I want to know what's going on in education. Show me what we're about, because we really need to take this seriously." And the level of dedication and activity already present was really, really impressive. So I absolutely didn't feel like, "Oh, this has to be remade." It's really, really impressive and I think totally appropriate what we're doing. As a sort of indication of my seriousness about this and also because I love to do it, I'm conducting school day concerts next month here. I'm actually doing an entire week of education concerts. I devoted one of my contractual weeks to kids' concerts. And I can't wait to do it, because I find that, for me personally as a musician, it's so enriching. I feel like I get so much out of making contact with young audiences, many of whom are hearing concerts for the first time, and hopefully who will, because of whatever spark we're able to kindle, will continue to come over the years. I think it's both important what we do in the hall, but also outside of the hall. And there's an incredible, very busy network of teachers and teaching fellows who are organized by the New York Philharmonic, who are going out into the schools. I mean, we've even done concerts on tour, in Tokyo, in Abu Dhabi, and we've met kids and done master classes with students in Vietnam. I mean, it's something we're really committed to, not just in New York but as part of our mission as an orchestra.
Jo Reed: Alan, you're the first native New Yorker appointed as music director of the New York Philharmonic, and you seem very committed to bringing the Orchestra to the City. You open up dress rehearsals to the public and you had this season’s opening night gala broadcast and shown live on TV screens in the main plaza of Lincoln Center.
Alan Gilbert: It’s something that we are always thinking about and trying to do. That is to say be New York’s Orchestra. There are many ways that I think it's possible to do that. New York is a very special market for music, and not many cities in the world have the situation, have to deal with the situation that the New York Philharmonic does. It's actually a blessing; it's wonderful. But the New York Philharmonic is just one of many orchestras that you can hear in New York, and while we play more than any other orchestra, it's important for us to define ourselves, both in the minds of the public, but also in fact, for the public, that we are not just an orchestra that happens to be in New York, but we are really New York's orchestra. What does that mean? It means that we really try to be available both in the concert hall and in other venues, outside the concert hall, as you just mentioned, in the Plaza, so that people can come and watch for free. Also in the parks-- that's a very, very important part of what we do. We play every summer to literally thousands and thousands, tens of thousands of people every summer. And we're going out into the schools, and now with the Contact concerts happening offsite in different venues we're exploring places in Brooklyn that I think would be appropriate for us to play, just to sort of spread our tentacles, if you will, so that we can really enter the consciousness of as many New Yorkers as possible. I don't think we'll ever get to the point I'm sure we'll never get to the point where every single New Yorker is going to be showing up at concerts. But on some level, I want New Yorkers to be aware of the New York Philharmonic as something that really is one of the gems of the city and that really defines what it means to be in such a culturally rich place.
Jo Reed: You began your tenure as music director with an opening night gala that had a world premiere – Magnus Lindberg's Expo. We got your schedule for the next season, and opening night, the NY Philharmonic will play an original piece by Wynton Marsalis.
Alan Gilbert: I think he's brilliant. I mean, there are a lot of messages that I'm trying to give here. I mean, the first is that music is music, and we're all in it together. As Duke Ellington said, "There are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music." Wynton is a great musician and is such a brilliant communicator. And we're on campus together here at Lincoln Center. It seemed to make a lot of sense to work together. We have a lot of projects we've talked about doing, and this will hopefully only be the first of many. But the idea of doing new music on opening night, I find that exciting, because there have been those people, I will admit, who say, "You know, opening night, let's just hear pieces we know." I want to put pieces on the program that people will love. And if they happen to know them, great. If they're brand-new pieces that have never been heard before, maybe even greater. Let people realize that we are in this together, that we're on a journey together, and we don't know exactly what's going to be around the next corner. But if we do it together, it's going to be an exciting journey.
Jo Reed: Oh, and it's one I'm just so thrilled to take. Alan, thank you so much.
Alan Gilbert: What a pleasure to speak with you.
Jo Reed: I appreciate it.
That was Alan Gilbert, we were talking about his first season as music director of the New York Philharmonic.
You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. The music is Ludwig von Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in A Major opus 92 and Expo by Magnus Lindberg both in performance by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert.
The Arts Work podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. Next week, National Heritage Fellows, The Birmingham Sunlights. To find out how art works in communities across the country keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEArts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.