A conversation with Alan Gilbert about the New York Philharmonic

Here is a brief interview with Alan Gilbert, the new Music Director for the New York Philharmonic. On Wednesday, September 16, Alan Gilbert begins his tenure as the new Music Director with a concert from Avery Fisher Hall that will be televised on PBS’s Live From Lincoln Center. Though most of the Manhattan-born conductor’s engagements this season are with his hometown orchestra, he also returns to Hamburg to lead the NDR Symphony Orchestra in November, and can be heard this month on a new recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. The recording, on the BIS label, was made in June 2008 and captures Gilbert’s final performances as the chief conductor and artistic advisor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. The Hybrid Super Audio CD, playable on both standard and SACD players, is now available for purchase from ArkivMusic.com and will receive wide release on Tuesday, September 29.

Q: So you’re back living in New York City . When was the last time you lived here in your hometown, and are you nervous about what lies ahead as you begin your tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic?

AG: The last time I lived in New York full time was nine years ago, before I moved to Stockholm . People have asked me what it feels like to be moving back to New York for such a challenging job, and I’m happy to say that I don’t feel particularly nervous – only really excited. If I’ve learned anything in my years working as a professional musician, it’s that the secret to controlling your nerves is showing up prepared. And that’s one thing that you can control. As for the stuff you can’t control, you need to forget about it!

Q: This summer, you had triumphs with the New York Philharmonic in Central Park and in Vail, Colorado . It sounds as though you are already in a terrific groove with them.

AG: We did our first Fantastique [Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique], which opens the season on September 16, at the orchestra’s summer home in Vail, and it went beautifully. The orchestra members are playing with such engagement. We’re already well into our work finding the unique sound world that each piece, and composer, inhabits – much further, actually, than I expected to be at this time. It’s so exciting that the players are giving so much of what they have to offer as musicians in such a free and generous way. It’s incredibly gratifying.

Q: How long into your planning of your first season did you choose Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique to be on your opening-night program?

AG: The opening-night program came together early on, but the Fantastique was the last piece that we put in place for it. The Magnus Lindberg premiere [called EXPO] came first; Lindberg is our new composer-in-residence. Then I had the idea, for whatever reason, that we should put something French with it. I spoke with Renée Fleming about doing something unexpected, like Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi. I thought it was a wonderful way for us to show something she hadn’t done in NYC, and a real statement about the direction we’re hoping to take with the programming. It’s also beautiful music that would not be alienating to anyone. Renée is famously thoughtful about her repertoire choices, and she’s been proved right again and again throughout her career, so when she agreed without hesitation to do the Messiaen, I felt as if we were onto something good. With these two groundbreakers in place, Fantastique went well with the French thread, and this revolutionary work is as dramatic, fresh and daring as it was at the time Berlioz wrote it, just a few years after the death of his idol Beethoven.

Q: Symphonie fantastique is such a thrilling work, full of very dramatic effects, especially with the famous “March to the Scaffold” and the “Witches’ Sabbath.” It’s certainly a great showpiece for the orchestra playing an opening-night gala.

AG: My favorite movement, actually, is in the “Scène aux champs” (Scene in the country), one of the most profound, stirring, and cosmic in the entire symphony – a piece that is great from beginning to end. It’s the highest level of expression in the whole symphony.

Q: Your first subscription program [September 17, 18, and 22] features a single, monumental work: Mahler’s Third Symphony. In the spring and summer you performed Mahler’s First with the orchestra. Why did you decide to do the composer’s Third Symphony so soon in your tenure?

AG: I’ve always wanted to do this piece with the Philharmonic. I’d be hesitant to pin down why I chose to do it at this particular time. Sometimes you choose something just because you want to do it!

Q: Is there anything else in music as beautiful as the last 20 minutes of this piece?

AG: [Smiles]. It’s a remarkable and very moving work.

Q: There’s more Mahler coming from you this month: the release of a recording of his Ninth Symphony with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic that you made in June 2008 in the last concerts of your tenure as the orchestra’s Chief Conductor and Artistic Advisor.

AG: It’s a live performance, and enough time has passed that I was able to listen to it recently – and somehow dispassionately – and I’m very pleased with how it turned out. The orchestral playing is top notch and the sound engineering by the BIS team is very convincing. I hope listeners will feel, as I do, that it tells the story of the piece convincingly.

Q: Where else will you be conducting this season?

AG: With such a busy schedule in New York , the only other conducting I’ll be doing this season is in Hamburg [with the NDR Symphony], where I will be doing four programs. I’ve conducted the orchestra a lot and we still have a great freshness in the relationship. We also have a quality of mutual understanding that can only happen after a certain amount of time, so it’s a situation that I’m happy to continue to enjoy.

Q: What was it like in July to look out from the stage and see 80,000 people listening to you and the orchestra on the Great Lawn in Central Park?

AG: I really couldn’t imagine a more perfect New York Philharmonic/ New York City event. The program [Mozart and Beethoven symphonies] was ideal, the weather was ideal, the audience was amazing. Where else could you find so many people getting together for music in such a peaceful community experience? I don’t think you could duplicate it anywhere else.

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