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Taking Over the Family Business

I first met a teenage Alan Gilbert more than twenty years ago in a Harvard composition seminar, where he would take out his violin or sit at the piano and gamely sight-read his classmates’ stabs at gnarled modernism. He didn’t lack for self-assurance, but he was not one of the college’s many self-appointed geniuses who broadcast to everyone that they were destined for greatness. He was simply destined for music. I lost track of him for a number of years, and so I missed his progress through a series of prestigious institutions—Tanglewood; Curtis; the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he played violin as a regular substitute; Juilliard; and the Cleveland Orchestra, where he did a three-year stint as assistant conductor. By the time we saw each other again, he was leading the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and had married a cellist in the ensemble, Kajsa William-Olsson. (They now have two toddlers, 3-year-old Noemi and 2-year-old Esra—the next generation of Philharmonic brats.)

We had never been close, so I was surprised by Gilbert’s warmth, until I realized that gathering the thread of old relationships is one of the conductor’s crucial skills. At his first rehearsal with the Philadelphia Orchestra he ambles onstage and makes his way from stand to stand, embracing old friends and shaking nearly 100 hands. Usually, the conductor strides out from the wings when the hour strikes, says “Good morning,” and lifts the baton. But by the time Gilbert arrives at the podium, he has built up a reservoir of goodwill. “You know, I realized the last time I played with you guys was sixteen years ago,” he says. “It’s great to be back. Let’s take the Nielsen.”

A topflight orchestra’s rehearsal is one of the world’s most efficient forms of human collaboration. Each person arrives onstage with thousands of practice hours animating fingers and lips as well as a collective muscle memory of style, of the timbre of massed strings, of how a graceful Mozart melody should speak. The conductor knows the music—a simple phrase that hides phenomenal acts of intellectual digestion. Gilbert performs more than a hundred symphonic works every year—that’s millions of notes and symbols, each with a specific weight and value that he must understand; ambiguities he must clear up; errors he has to account for; notational quirks that have to be kept in mind. Should a crescendo end with a hammerstroke accent on the downbeat or with a gentler push? How sharp will a staccato be? How syrupy the slide between melodic notes? The conductor must maintain a huge internal database of instantly retrievable facts and decisions. There is no way to fake that knowledge.

But on the Philadelphia podium, Gilbert is a master of saying as little as possible. He gives the downbeat for a different Nielsen symphony—the Second—and the score, which most musicians have never played and some have never heard, leaps to half-formed life. The rhythms are already more or less correct, and the spirit takes shape on the fly. Gilbert keeps the tempos flexible, and the players have to keep one eye on the baton to know which way the beat is leaning. He gives the first violins a twist of his left wrist to signal that a certain flourish should be fairylike and spry. The passage flits by before they can respond, but when it returns a couple of minutes later, they remember his gesture and give him what he wanted before. Almost without comment, he manages to summon the glinting, chill expanses and the dark Nordic rush of melody.

“Sometimes not saying something is more powerful than saying it, and putting it off makes it more notable when you do say it,” Gilbert tells me over a burger at a nearby brewpub after the rehearsal. “I’m always thinking about what I’m going to say, when I’m going to say it, and how. Can I be outrageous? Do I need to be deferential? Every comment I make is combined with a moment of self-examination. I always think to myself first, Did I show what I wanted? If I haven’t showed something then it’s not fair to ask for it.” It’s a delicate feat to maintain such a high level of self-consciousness while at the same time remaining natural and relaxed. “I try to be myself. The orchestra sees through everything, and the only way to avoid looking as if you’re posturing is not to posture. I’m not asking for things because I want them for myself. It’s for the music. If there’s work to be done, we’re going to do it.”

After his concerts in Philadelphia, Gilbert brings the Curtis orchestra to New York for a performance at Carnegie Hall. He has a few hours off in the morning, and we meet at the Metropolitan Museum, one of his favorite haunts in high school and a rare treat ever since. “I never come here without looking at the Vermeers,” he tells me, and we strike off through the maze of galleries. He plants himself in front of Young Woman With a Water Pitcher, entranced by the hushed fervor of the painting. The woman is tucked into an angle of a room, her head held at a contemplative tilt, her face slightly obscured by a linen scarf. She’s just begun to open a window, flooding her tight corner with a buttery daylight and an intimation of invisible horizons beyond the sill. “She’s so alone with her thoughts,” Gilbert murmurs, “but then there’s also the light from outdoors, the map hanging on the wall, and the carpet spread out on the table, which clearly comes from some distant land. You can feel the presence of the wider world.” The painting resonates perfectly with his sensibility—the poise, the laboriously achieved serenity, the meticulous artistry, and the undertow of scalding emotion. I think of him exploring the cramped back offices of Avery Fisher Hall, mulling over how to coax his new orchestra out of its comfortable corner, and carefully cracking open a window on a marvelous musical landscape that’s waiting to be explored.