Topic: NY Philharmonic Names New Music Director
Jennifer Taylor for The New York Times
Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic in February.
By DANIEL J. WAKIN
Published: July 18, 2007
The New York Philharmonic reached into its family tree and plucked Alan Gilbert, the 40-year-old son of two Philharmonic musicians, as its next music director, making him the first native New Yorker in the position and a rare American in the job.
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Times Topics: New York Philharmonic
Philharmonic officials also said they would appoint an elder statesman, Riccardo Muti, 65, to serve in a supporting role equivalent to principal guest conductor.
The decisions, to be formally announced at a news conference today, ended several years of speculation about who would succeed Lorin Maazel, who has two seasons left on his contract.
Mr. Gilbert, who started an annual two-week stint as guest conductor last season, had long been a likely candidate. Orchestra officials said he appeared to be a front-runner at least a year ago, and that the decision crystallized in the spring.
“Every time he’s come here, it’s been better than the prior time,” Zarin Mehta, the orchestra’s president, said. “We’ve watched him grow. He’s a good musician. He’s approaching the prime of his career. He’s young and a New Yorker, and he has family in the orchestra.”
Mr. Gilbert’s mother, Yoko Takebe, is a violinist, and his father, Michael Gilbert, also a violinist, retired in 2001. A first cousin, Miki Takebe, is the Philharmonic’s director of operations.
Mr. Mehta offered Mr. Gilbert the job in a telephone call on July 2, and he is to be introduced to reporters this morning. His contract, which starts in 2009, will run for 5 years and calls for 12 weeks of concerts a season.
While pushing the limit for a baseball player, 42 will be a tender age for the music director of one of the world’s major orchestras, especially the Philharmonic, where many musicians and concertgoers expect a seasoned maestro of major stature to occupy the podium.
Several conductors in that category, like Daniel Barenboim and Mr. Muti, said they were not interested in the job. And the Philharmonic has turned to conductors in their early 40s before, like Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein, the orchestra’s first American-born music director since its founding conductor, Ureli Corelli Hill, in 1842. Mr. Maazel was born in Paris, but grew up in the United States.
“Could we have gotten an older guy?” asked Paul B. Guenther, the orchestra’s chairman. “Maybe, maybe not. But this is the right thing for the orchestra at this time in this city.” He acknowledged that the choice is risky. “There are always risks,” he said.
Zarin Mehta and other Philharmonic officials presented the decision as a generational change. Mr. Maazel, the music director since 2002, is 77, and Kurt Masur, his predecessor, was 74 when he left that year.
Mr. Mehta said that Mr. Gilbert’s skills were above reproach and that he had other important qualities: fresh ideas, the ability to communicate and “that indefinable leadership quality that you look for.”
The orchestral landscape is also changing. Elder statesmen of the podium are a diminishing breed. The classical music world is in the grip of a debate about its relevance to society, with the corollary concern that younger audiences must be reached. Some orchestras are experimenting with two or three leaders. Others, like the Chicago Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra, have put off permanent decisions by hiring interim chiefs.
New York may have come under pressure to hire a younger music director with the recent announcement by the Los Angeles Philharmonic that it had snapped up Gustavo Dudamel, a 26-year-old Venezuelan considered the hottest conducting property around.
Mr. Gilbert’s career has been rising rapidly since he became chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra in 2000. He has become a regular guest conductor at major orchestras. Next season he makes his debut at the Vienna State Opera in Bizet’s “Carmen.”
His musical pedigree is excellent. He substituted as a violinist in the Philadelphia Orchestra (under Mr. Muti himself) while studying at the Curtis Institute of Music; became familiar with the Boston Symphony Orchestra while an undergraduate at Harvard; and was an assistant conductor for the Cleveland Orchestra for three years. He also has a conducting degree from the Juilliard School, having studied there with Otto-Werner Mueller.
Mr. Gilbert made his New York Philharmonic debut in 2001; three years later he, Mr. Muti and David Robertson, now music director of the St. Louis Symphony, were all given regular guest-conducting stints in what was seen as something of a bake-off. Mr. Gilbert has conducted the Philharmonic in 31 concerts.
Mr. Muti, one of the orchestra’s favorite guest conductors, is expected to spend about six to eight weeks a season with the orchestra and to lead tours. He will not have a formal contract. The Philharmonic appears to have backtracked from a plan disclosed in April to divide its leadership between a music director and a principal conductor.
Mr. Muti was clearly the choice for the second position. “He just didn’t want a title,” Mr. Mehta said. “He’s free, and he’s Italian.” Mr. Muti, in a statement, said that conducting the Philharmonic has been a highlight of his musical life.
In an interview, Mr. Gilbert was unstinting in his praise for the orchestra. It was far too early, he said, to express any specific plans. He said he would like to see it “connecting with the city in a way that’s really fresh and really alive and really current,” and that his job was to keep the orchestra at its musical best.
Mr. Gilbert’s connection to New York will be a change from that of Mr. Maazel, who has been fairly removed from the life of the city. Mr. Gilbert said it was premature to say whether he would move back to New York. His wife, Kajsa William-Olsson, is a cellist with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, and they have two young children.
“What I hope to do with the Philharmonic is continue to bank on the amazing abilities of the players,” he said, “but also think about ways of working together, playing together, listening together, having a flexibility that happens in the moment and causes people to really listen in a fresh way.”
In Stockholm, Mr. Gilbert said, he was especially proud of his two-week festivals devoted to living composers. He has also ranged widely through the literature, from the central Germanic repertory of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven through contemporary Swedish composers.
Swedish music critics have praised Mr. Gilbert’s repertory choices and the liveliness of his performances. Reviewers here have been generally positive, too, noting the clarity of his textures, a decisiveness of musical line and a sensitivity to nuance.
Mr. Gilbert is also known for constructing adventurous and interesting programs. “I prefer not to hammer the audience over the head with didactic thinking,” he said. “I prefer to let them find their way. It should be possible, without juicing it up, to let the music help people tap into who they are.”
In Mr. Gilbert the Philharmonic has a true son of the orchestra and of New York. He grew up on the Upper West Side, attending the Ethical Culture School and Fieldston, a private school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. He attended Philharmonic concerts weekly as well as rehearsals, and accompanied his parents on tours. He was known as the child handing out passports. Many members have watched him grow up.
“I was this little orchestra brat who knew everybody,” he said. “I find it still amazing that it’s come to this.”
Orchestra officials and Mr. Gilbert said they were not worried that his emotional bond with the orchestra would interfere with his new role as their boss. “Ultimately the health of the organization has to take precedence over one particular person’s feelings,” Mr. Gilbert said.
At his Philharmonic debut, he said, he was “keenly aware” of his mother’s presence to his left, once calling out “Mom!” in jest when she came in a little late during a rehearsal. He said he was also aware of a supportive home-team feeling from the players. But those feelings faded with more performances.
“It’s interesting how the work takes over, and the concentration of rehearsals is really all-encompassing,” he said. The family dynamic will probably change, he added, “but hopefully it won’t disappear.”