New York Philharmonic: Conversation - Alan Gilbert and Mat‹as Tarnopolsky

Classic Arts Features   New York Philharmonic: Conversation - Alan Gilbert and Mat‹as Tarnopolsky
When Alan Gilbert returns to the New York Philharmonic this month, he'll be a different person, in a way.

The 41-year-old won't just be the Philharmonic "family" he's always been, whose parents were violinists in the Orchestra (his father retired a few years ago); nor will he be the up-and-coming conductor who has frequently led the Philharmonic since he made his debut in 2001. This time he appears as the Philharmonic's Music Director Designate‹the first native New Yorker in the post‹who will take over from Lorin Maazel in the 2009-10 season.

In the following conversation, moderated by journalist Bradley Bambarger, Mr. Gilbert joins Philharmonic Artistic Administrator MatÐas Tarnopolsky to discuss the music he will conduct this month, as well as the audience, the city, and the spotlight.

Before you walk on stage in March, you will have already conducted the New York Philharmonic 23 times. Does it have a character that sets it apart from other major orchestras?

Alan Gilbert: Few orchestras have an individual level of musician as high as those in the Philharmonic. Each one is so staggeringly accomplished, both technically and musically, that what the Orchestra brings to a score is very powerful. What I or any musician aims to do is bring a deeply felt point of view to the music, and the Philharmonic brings its own, collective imprint to every piece. Only the best ensembles have such a clearly defined "face," while also being so responsive. Music is infinitely varied, and this Orchestra is capable of conveying that full range of power and sensitivity.

The Philharmonic also expresses the wide scope of music in its repertoire. What has been the rationale behind the Orchestra's pairing of Beethoven with Luciano Berio, as in a program this month?

MatÐas Tarnopolsky: We want to show the resonance between the great Romantic composer, Beethoven, and the great modern romantic, Berio. In particular, we aim to highlight the intense drama in the music of both composers. Berio was at heart a man of the theater. Beethoven's music, in a very different way, has a dramatic flair. We're pairing Berio's Folk Songs with what is perhaps Beethoven's folksiest symphony, the Fourth.

On the same program is Haydn's Maria Theresia Symphony. What is it that appeals to you about his music?

AG: Haydn's phrasing is often asymmetrical, far less regular than, say, Mozart's. There's something exciting about that quirky, unexpected, witty flow to Haydn. For musicians, it's important to play his symphonies because they keep you agile. There's nothing bitter at all about the Haydn pill, but it's a tonic for orchestras.

The following week, you'll lead the World Premiere of Marc Neikrug's Quintessence: Symphony No. 2, which started as a piano quintet ...

AG: I heard Marc's Piano Quintet performed at the Sante Fe Chamber Music Festival, where he is artistic director. It was a moving experience. He's a good friend, and I told him that while I loved the piece, I could hear a wider palette of colors in the music than the format of a piano quintet could provide. Marc felt that too, and he rewrote the quintet asa symphonic work that exploits the vast possibilities of a full orchestra.

MT: Marc's music is warm and rich. Quintessence is especially sensuous.

AG: There's nothing trendy about Marc's music. It's deeply personal, andit speaks to real feelings that people have. Quintessence is emotionally lush.

Is this lushness what connects Quintessence to Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), on the same program?

AG: Ein Heldenleben is autobiographical: it's about people and tells a story. Marc's piece takes you on an emotional journey that's different but not unrelated to the human element in the Strauss.

Is that aspect of music, the human element, what you look for in contemporary works?

AG: There's a lot of worthwhile contemporary music that is principally notable for its technical and textural qualities. Marc is a throwback, in the best sense, to a time when composers sought to express something about what it is to be human. Happily, there's room for all sorts of music.

To help audiences explore music more deeply, the Philharmonic has devised two contextual series, Inside the Music and Hear & Now. Do you think these sorts of presentations are vital for orchestras now?

AG: MatÐas has been one of the people spearheading these things; I'm just excited to join in. Still, I have found that audiences want to be engaged intellectually as well as viscerally. These events give a listener the chance to delve into the music in a way that provides a connection to the performers, who are speaking from the stage in a way that is interesting but not didactic.

Speaking of connecting, what are your philosophies on the civic role an orchestra can play?

MT: One fact that enables the Philharmonic to play a positive role in the social fabric is that musical values are also human values. Music, more than any other art form, teaches you how to lead and follow, how to really listen, how to stand still and reflect as well as accelerate and move ahead.

AG: An orchestra can also be an ambassador for a city, a representation of what the city is truly about. I'm very much a New Yorker, and I'm excited to deepen the idea that the Philharmonic isn't just the orchestra that happens to bein New York, but one that is very much New York's Orchestra.

With these two sets of concerts serving as a sort of "coming out" for you as incoming Music Director, will the spotlight feel a bit hotter?

AG: I'm sure I'll feel a closer scrutiny on the relationship and on who I am. But any time you step in front of an orchestra you hope for a sense of trust, and I see this appointment as the ultimate affirmation of trust. I'm moved and honored at the idea of leading the Philharmonic, as well as humbled. It'sa clich_, but true: I deal with pressure by allowing the music to take over.

Bradley Bambarger is a staff music critic with The Star-Ledger.

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