This season the whole city is alive with Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds, a celebration of the musical legacy left it by Leonard Bernstein. Perhaps no one is more aware of this than Alan Gilbert. After all, in 2009 he will become the New York Philharmonic's Music Director, inheriting the title created for Bernstein, along with all the Bernstein riches: the wonderfully varied body of music literature, the written words, the spectacular films and recordings, and, most of all, the New York Philharmonic, on whose personality and performance Bernstein left the most indelible of imprints. "I'm keenly aware of the fact that he's one of my greatest predecessors," Mr. Gilbert says. "It's a big legacy to live up to. I especially try to remember how aware he was of the power of music and how he used it to connect with people."
He knows whereof he speaks. The 41-year-old son of Philharmonic violinists Yoko Takebe and Michael Gilbert (the latter is retired) grew up in the very midst of the Orchestra and had ample opportunity to see Bernstein conduct. "I would run into him backstage at the Philharmonic and he knew me by sight. I think he liked the fact that I was the son of two of his players." The younger Gilbert cherishes memories of that time: "I've seen many people perform, but Lenny was the one that made you feel the power of music most intensely; watching him was about the entire life experience." He continues, "He often said that his favorite things were music and people because for him they were the same; he felt and lived this and everything so intensely. To me that was both infectious and inspiring."
Alan Gilbert studied at Harvard University, The Curtis Institute of Music, and The Juilliard School, with summers at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. At Harvard and Tanglewood, he benefited from small but potent doses of Lenny. At Tanglewood, the conducting students often worked with two pianists rather than a full orchestra, and, Mr. Gilbert recalls, "Lenny would help when he was there. It wasn't the best approximation of what music was about, but he got you going for the real feel of the piece no matter what the technical glitches were." He adds, "Lenny helped you feel that energy behind the creation of sound."
And there were other, more social interactions. "I ran into him at Harvard in '86 at the 350th anniversary celebrations, which culminated in a huge dinner in Memorial Hall. Lenny was the final keynote speaker. When my friends and I told him we weren't invited he said, 'You're invited now. Meet me there and I'll get you in.' We were getting nowhere with security when we said that Leonard Bernstein invited us. Suddenly I was enveloped in a big bear hug. 'Gilbert!' said a gruff voice, and we were in. But it was 12:30 [at night] when Lenny got up to speak. He said, 'This is the greatest speech I ever wrote in my life, but it's very late so in all fairness let's take a vote.' And it was voted down! We asked if he would give it in another venue, and he agreed. I rode to the occasion with Lenny and his daughter Nina, the two of them singing show tunes all the while, and after 1:00 a.m. Lenny gave this hour-long speech. It was amazing : he had just come back from Vienna and it was about being Jewish, performing in Vienna, and the power of music to facilitate reconciliation. It made me so proud to be a musician."
Mr. Gilbert conducts two vital concerts in the Bernstein festival. The first, a commemoration on November 14 of Bernstein's historic surprise debut at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic on that day in 1943: "It's of course fraught with meaning, and I'm trying not to build it up too much in my mind." For the all-Bernstein program, he says, "I opted for the pieces I consider his greatest and that I love the most : each showing a different side of Lenny." Therefore the program includes works for film music (a suite from his score to On the Waterfront), Broadway (suites from West Side Story), and the concert hall. This last is represented by the Serenade, which Mr. Gilbert describes as Bernstein's "best piece on his 'serious' side; such a well crafted piece, a wonderful vehicle for the violin, and [Philharmonic Concertmaster] Glenn Dicterow plays it so well! That's a masterpiece and I think Bernstein thought so, too."
Then, on November 24 the Philharmonic will present Mr. Gilbert conducting the Juilliard Orchestra, a tribute to Bernstein's commitment to pass on knowledge to younger generations. "I'm thrilled to be conducting one of my alma maters' orchestras," Mr. Gilbert says of the concert, which comprises Bernstein's Symphony No. 3, Kaddish, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, Eroica. "There are a lot of reasons I chose this program," he explains. "First, the pieces work together nicely. Eroica has an incredible range of feeling and includes that astonishing funeral march, while Kaddish is a song of mourning. But," he adds, "I was looking at it from an educational standpoint; the orchestra's and my own. The Eroica is wonderful for students; so much to learn and work on. And I've never done the Kaddish before," he says, laughing, "so I've been studying it like crazy."
Through the technical prowess, natural grace, and immediate joy that Alan Gilbert displays while conducting, it is evident that Bernstein's legacy will be safe in his hands. "I hope I've absorbed something," he says modestly. "But what I try to do is embody the sound the way he did. He was all about sound and he wanted his body and gestures to be the sound, to show the character and feeling of the sound. He was incredibly precise when he wanted to be; when he wasn't, it was by design and choice. I think that's so important to remember about Lenny's conducting: an amazing, organic response to sound."
Robin Tabachnik is a New York _based arts and culture journalist who writes frequently for Playbill, Town & Country, and IN New York magazine.