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Taking Over the Family Business

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Alan Gilbert and his sister watching their parents perform in Central Park, and other childhood snapshots.  

Like his predecessors, Gilbert’s a spectacular musician. I can still savor a night in 2004, when Gilbert steered the New York Philharmonic through Ives’s lunatic Fourth Symphony, making the madness seem inevitable and wringing an awesome clarity out of the maelstrom of sound. In fact, it is that devotion to the extremes of musical expression, combined with his blandly understated manner, that offers the best chance in a generation to transform a torpid organization into a vibrant cultural force.

Gilbert is still a year away from announcing specific plans, but some things are already coming clear: He’ll likely name a composer-in-residence and form a new-music ensemble within the orchestra. He’ll play violin in the Philharmonic’s chamber ensemble and forge new partnerships with other arts organizations for interdisciplinary projects. He likes eclectic, unconventional programs, and he envisages mini-festivals devoted to underappreciated composers. He is thinking on a large canvas: When I share with him my fantasy that he would conduct the New York premiere of Olivier Messiaen’s great, grand, and very long opera Saint François d’Assise in a concert performance, he tells me that it was, in fact, the first project he proposed. (He was stymied by the competition: New York City Opera had already announced a desire, though not concrete plans, to stage the opera.)

All this leaves me excited by the prospect of Gilbert’s tenure, full of admiration for his talent and ambitions—and worried that the institution won’t allow him to fulfill them. There’s something counterintuitive about a settled, stable, and successful organization hiring a potentially disruptive music director. It was the highly conservative executive director Zarin Mehta who groomed him for the job, and it’s unclear whether he will support or obstruct Gilbert’s agenda, or even how much longer he will stay around to do either. (He will just be turning 71 by the time his protégé arrives full time.) The same question applies to board chairman Paul Guenther, who announced nearly two years ago that he would soon step down but has yet to do so. I ask Gilbert whether he shares my anxiety that once the glow of his novelty has faded, the institution will revert to its tenacious timidity, especially if the now-solid box office starts to falter.

“I’m tenacious, too,” he answers. “And I can be patient. What I can’t do is come in and set off a bomb and shake things up right away.” He leans slightly on the phrase right away. It’s a response that gives me hope for the long term, because it shows he is neither a callow revolutionary like the young Boulez (who once suggested blowing up all the opera houses) nor an accommodationist but an artist with a clear vision and canny political instincts.

In a psychologically important sense, the New York Philharmonic is elevating one of its own. When Gilbert was a boy, both his parents were violinists in the orchestra’s ranks, and music-world gossip filled the family home. His father, Michael Gilbert, has since retired; his mother, Yoko Takebe, still keeps a parental eye on the podium from the violin section. Alan played violin, as did his younger sister, Jennifer, now the concertmaster of the Orchestre National de Lyon. “My father would move to the cello and my mother would play viola, and we’d play easy Mozart or Haydn string quartets,” recalls Jennifer Gilbert. The children heard their parents practice their parts and attended their performances. “When I was 8,” Gilbert remembers, “I went to the Philharmonic’s Mahler Festival. Later, my piano teacher got me a score of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony for my birthday, which was my favorite because of the trumpet call at the beginning.” He gives a rueful look. “I was a weird kid.”

The fact that he was born into the orchestra—that his native language is Philharmonese—should shorten the time it takes him to learn how to steer the intricate machine. It has already helped him earn the players’ trust. His mother remembers a very small Alan winning over a phalanx of suspicious musicians. “We took the kids on tour a little apologetically,” she says, “and we tried to keep them from being too obvious. But then, in airports, he’d help the management hand out passports, and on the plane he’d keep the musicians entertained with a Rubik’s Cube.” Some of those musicians are still there, and they will never stop calling him Alan. (For them, Takebe says, addressing him as maestro “would be pretty strange.”) To Gilbert, having friends in the ranks is important; having his mother there is something he pretty much needs to forget. At his debut rehearsal with the Philharmonic, Takebe slipped into her seat a few moments late. Gilbert gave her a reproachful look and let out a petulant, adolescent “Mo-om!


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