Taking Over the Family Business

Photo: Henry Leutwyler

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.

Alan Gilbert and his sister watching their parents perform in Central Park, and other childhood snapshots.Photo: All courtesy of Alan Gilbert

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!

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.

Taking Over the Family Business