A damp evening on the cusp of rush hour, and as downtown Philadelphia starts emptying into the suburbs, the conductor Alan Gilbert is just heading into the second half of his workday. He’s led one rehearsal with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the morning, another with the soloists in the afternoon, and he’s got just ten minutes before a three-hour session with the student orchestra at the Curtis Institute of Music, followed by a late working dinner. He tosses a duffel bag and a backpack full of scores into the trunk of the chauffeured car that will take him four blocks to the school, his alma mater. He sinks into the back seat, his sweaty shirt clinging to the leather, his eyes sagging with fatigue. “I just don’t have it right now,” he says. “But I’ll try to do a good imitation of someone who does.”A few minutes and a clean shirt later, he steps into the wood-paneled halls of Curtis, a hyperelite academy for students from 10-year-old prodigies to college graduates just one debut away from stardom (or from giving up music altogether). Gilbert’s job is to corral all the unruly talent rattling around the cramped rehearsal room and organize it into a disciplined ensemble. He starts conducting Nielsen’s Third Symphony, which comes out gluey and unfocused. His beat is clear, but the piece is unfamiliar and the players are thrown by the rubbery sense of time, the brooding rumbles and eruptions, by a climax that comes before a buildup. After a few bars, he taps his baton on a stand to stop the music, then glares at the bassists, who are still sawing away. “I like to lead from the bass,” Gilbert scolds. “You should be totally clued into whether I’m pushing the beat or holding it back, otherwise everyone else has to make a choice whether to go with me or with you. You’re undermining the credibility of my beat.” He conducts a few more seconds, stops, harangues, repeats, corrects, and does it all again. He insists that technique and expression are inseparable, that the musicians must play correctly and with feeling at the same time. “Here, I’d like something slightly depraved,” he instructs. Soon, the grit starts falling away from the score and the colors and contours begin to emerge. Now it’s the kids who look tired, but Gilbert is energized by a bottomless well of adrenaline and a conviction that the strange, hard beauty of Nielsen’s music is worth the labor it takes to extract it.
Last June, when the New York Philharmonic announced that this hardworking, soft-spoken, 41-year-old maestro would become music director in the fall of 2009, the public responded with a thundering Alan who? “I’m a total mystery to most people,” Gilbert says, laughing. But not to the Philharmonic. Although he leads the orchestra next week for the first time since his appointment, he has conducted there almost every season since 2001, each time unleashing torrents of quiet respect but never the breathlessness that greeted, say, the 26-year-old podium whiz kid Gustavo Dudamel’s debut last fall.
The difference is more a matter of personality than talent. “I’m naturally kind of shy,” Gilbert admits. “It’s important for the institution to have a person’s face attached to it, and I know it’s going to have to be mine, but I’m not the sort of person who’s going to be clubbing every night and getting myself on ‘Page Six.’ ” Conductors so often deploy charm as part of their weaponry that it’s startling to come across one who lacks flash, or a self-aggrandizing attitude, or any whiff of bullshit. “He doesn’t have star power,” a friend remarked to me recently, and it’s true that he doesn’t swashbuckle, toss his locks, or execute a manic podium dance.
Nevertheless, Gilbert is primed to become a luminary of the city’s cultural life—not just because he’ll be the first native New Yorker, the first Asian-American, and one of the youngest people to direct the 166-year-old orchestra, but because he could lead a quiet revolution, sweeping away the pieties and irresolution that have clung to the orchestra for decades. It’s been a long time since the New York Philharmonic has lived up to its hometown’s reputation for incubating a bit of insanity. Leonard Bernstein’s tenure produced a Mahler revival, the televised Young People’s Concerts, and a vast array of music by assorted American mavericks. Later, Pierre Boulez defied decorum with his “Rug Concerts,” when he ripped the seats from the hall and invited audiences to loll on foam mats and embrace the rigors of modernism. But since 1978, the orchestra has had a series of conductors—Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur, and Lorin Maazel—who have seen themselves not as innovators but as stewards of the grand tradition.