"The Second Season": Alan Gilbert Enters Year Two at Helm of the NY Phil

Classic Arts Features   "The Second Season": Alan Gilbert Enters Year Two at Helm of the NY Phil
As the New York Philharmonic begins the 2010 _11 season, Peter W. Goodman sheds light on Music Director Alan Gilbert's hopes for the growing partnership between the Orchestra and the audience.


"I want to make sure that, when audiences do not recognize a piece we're playing, they are not alarmed by the prospect of hearing something new," said Alan Gilbert, speaking of the Orchestra's 2010 _11 season during an interview last winter. "The programs that we choose should have such meaning and such an obvious story that audiences think, 'Oh, they programmed it : I really should hear that, because it's going to be interesting.'" And he does mean "interesting." In Mr. Gilbert's second season as Music Director, the Philharmonic examines such unexpected connections as the links among Haydn, Bart‹k, and Ligeti (in the Hungarian Echoes festival, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, March 10 _26); brash works including the New York Premiere of The Marie-Jos_e Kravis Composer-in-Residence Magnus Lindberg's Kraft, during which half a dozen musicians, playing on instruments made of scrap metal, enter through the auditorium (October 7, 8, 12); three orchestral programs and a series of chamber and recital concerts featuring the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, this season's Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence, whose programs explore music composed over centuries, from Mozart through two World Premieres (November 14 _23, March 31 _April 3, June 2 _5); and combinations of the familiar and the brand-new, such as the program featuring Philharmonic musicians that sandwiches a World Premiere trumpet concerto by Aaron Jay Kernis : a Philharmonic co-commission : and concertos by Paul Hindemith and Christopher Rouse between a Vivaldi Concerto for Four Violins, RV 580, and Ravel's Bol_ro (December 28 _30).

That last program hints at the literal family relationship between the Philharmonic and its Music Director. His mother, Yoko Takebe, is a violinist in the Orchestra and, Mr. Gilbert recalls, was "one of the four soloists when Zubin [Mehta] did this very piece," he says, referring to the Vivaldi. This time the four solo violins will be played by the Philharmonic's Principal Associate Concertmaster Sheryl Staples; Assistant Concertmaster Michelle Kim; Principal, Second Violin Group, Marc Ginsberg; and Associate Principal, Second Violin Group, Lisa Kim. Also on the program: Principal Horn Philip Myers plays Hindemith's Horn Concerto, Principal Oboe Liang Wang is spotlighted in Christopher Rouse's Oboe Concerto, and Principal Trumpet Philip Smith unveils Kernis's a Voice, a Messenger, a piece that the composer said was inspired by "appearances of various instruments in the Bible that relate to the trumpet and the shofar," the ram's horn blown during the Jewish High Holy Days.

Clearly Alan Gilbert is interested in bringing new and unusual music to Avery Fisher Hall. Besides the Kernis, he will be conducting four other world premieres (including three on CONTACT!, the Philharmonic's new-music series), two U.S. premieres (including Wynton Marsalis's Symphony No. 3, Swing Symphony, on the Opening Night Concert, September 22 : see page 12 for more information), and three New York premieres. He will also lead the American premiere of Thomas Ads's In Seven Days, Concerto for Piano with Moving Image (January 6 _8), an abstract retelling of the creation story of the Book of Genesis that features images projected on six video screens, devised by Tal Rosner. The composer will make his Philharmonic debut as a pianist by playing what Mr. Gilbert describes as the "significant and incredibly difficult piano part," adding, "His music is incredibly powerful, incredibly intense."

In fact, Mr. Gilbert is intrigued by this visual element, which, he says, fits into "the thread that we're doing with the operas that we're presenting with Doug Fitch." He is referring to the final work performed this season, a multimedia presentation of Janšˇcek's opera The Cunning Little Vixen (June 22 _25), directed and designed by Mr. Fitch. Mr. Gilbert has made a point of describing the production as staged. "Something is either staged or it's not," he says, "and we are going to stage this production. It's going to have a fully realized visual picture."

However, Alan Gilbert is not by any means narrowly focused on new music. His season includes Mendelssohn's Elijah, with bass-baritone Gerald Finley (who sang the lead role in Mr. Gilbert's 2008 performances of John Adams's Dr. Atomic at The Metropolitan Opera) : in the work's 12th performance by the Philharmonic (November 10 _13); Brahms's Violin Concerto, with Pinchas Zukerman, and Symphony No. 4 (October 14 _16); and a rich helping of Beethoven, including the Violin Concerto with Midori (November 12 at Carnegie Hall) and Symphony No. 3, Eroica (May 4 _7).

Indeed, Mr. Gilbert will be leading several programs with links to one celebrated Philharmonic music director, Gustav Mahler, and with advice from another, Leonard Bernstein. This season marks the 150th anniversary of Mahler's birth, and the 100th anniversaries of both his final Philharmonic season and his death. Mr. Gilbert will lead performances of the Symphonies Nos. 6 (September 29 _ October 1) and 5 (April 27 _30), as well as the song cycle Kindertotenlieder with baritone Thomas Hampson (January 6 _8). He has also invited other conductors to lead other Mahler works, specifically Sir Colin Davis (who conducts Des Knaben Wunderhorn, with soprano Dorothea R‹schmann and tenor Ian Bostridge, December 2 _4, 7), and Daniel Harding (Symphony No. 4, with soprano Lisa Milne, March 3 _5).

The Philharmonic's current Music Director has particular feelings for the Symphony No. 6: "It is a deeply despairing, pessimistic work," he observes. "Something about the ending is just utterly devastating." Still, he also finds in it some of "the most ecstatic, unbelievably happy, beautiful music that I think Mahler ever, ever wrote." The composer, he says, "was trying to paint a picture of life with this symphony." Mr. Gilbert adds: "I have to say, every time I conduct Mahler I think of Lenny. That's because, on the last page of the Philharmonic's score of the Symphony No. 9, Bernstein wrote a few phrases about how important it is to conduct very, very slowly. On the last page he wrote : and this is amazing : 'Have the courage to stay in eight.' I agree: if you keep it as slow as it is, I think it really works. It becomes endless."

That somber conclusion does not describe this season, or the vision held by this Music Director. "I try to choose pieces I want to do, and that I think the Orchestra should play and that our audiences should hear. The most important thing is to know that any way you feel about a piece is okay, but it's really worth giving everything we play the chance. I hope people will say, 'Oh, the New York Philharmonic has decided to play it, obviously it's worth trying out and there's a reason to do it.' I want a trust to develop, for there to be a real relationship between the Orchestra and our public."


Peter W. Goodman is an assistant professor of journalism at Hofstra University. For many years he was a music critic for Newsday and New York Newsday.

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