THE ALAN GILBERT SIGNATURE
By Steve Smith
A music journalist who followed the Philharmonic’s projects during Alan Gilbert’s tenure reflects on eight years of excitement, surprise, and discovery.
When did you first know — really know — how dramatically things had changed at the New York Philharmonic during Alan Gilbert’s tenure as Music Director? For me, that moment of realization came in June 2013, when Rebecca Young, a Philharmonic member since 1986 and the Orchestra’s Associate Principal Viola since 1991, rose from her seat and juggled.
The occasion — A Dancer’s Dream, a multidisciplinary staging of Stravinsky’s The Fairy’s Kiss and Petrushka, conceived and directed by Doug Fitch —signaled not only that the institution would continue to embrace the imaginative and the audacious, but that its musicians, among the world’s most respected, could engage these fresh undertakings in unorthodox, unexpected ways. Young’s elegant, spirited contribution showed that beyond performing with discipline and virtuosity, Philharmonic members could face new challenges eagerly and ebulliently.
As Gilbert’s imminent departure invites us to view his eight seasons as a finite, bracketed quantity, we can ponder the impact of his chemistry with the Philharmonic: the objectives behind storied ventures like Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre, Philharmonic 360 at Park Avenue Armory, and the NY PHIL BIENNIAL, as well as the more fundamental and no less crucial work of performing substantive concerts at a high level, week after week.
To be sure, novel initiatives materialized as soon as Gilbert — the first native New Yorker to serve as the Philharmonic’s Music Director — assumed the post in September 2009. Magnus Lindberg arrived for what would be a substantial, fruitful tenure as The Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence. The estimable baritone Thomas Hampson became the Orchestra’s Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence. CONTACT!, a boldly conceived new-music series, announced an integral commitment to composers of our time.
Anyone who has followed the Philharmonic for decades knows that the institution had in the past installed resident composers, sustained relationships with prominent artists, presented new-music concerts, and, yes, offered staged presentations of multidisciplinary works such as ballet, opera, and musical theater. But with Gilbert’s signature endeavors and his broad-focus approach to making subscription-series programs, the Philharmonic has shown that it can embrace change even as it honors tradition. Conductor and orchestra believe that such change is not an end in itself, but a way to serve its existing audience while also refreshing and expanding it by emphasizing boldness, inclusiveness, and collaboration as key to its mission.
Those qualities are represented in microcosm within the four subscription programs that constitute the climactic finale of Gilbert’s formal tenure. Each is a singular, satisfying event in its own right; taken together, they affirm the strengths in Gilbert’s philosophy, and represent strides the Philharmonic has taken with him.
The first program, in May, pairs works by two canonic figures: one, Beethoven’s glorious Symphony No. 9, by a composer central to our conception of the orchestral oeuvre and, indeed, classical music writ large; the other, Schoenberg’s gripping A Survivor from Warsaw, representing a revolutionary artist (and a polarizing one even now) at his most referential and urgently communicative. These works are bound by a shared view of the power in voices lifted together in song, whether in exuberant affirmation (Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”) or in defiance against tyranny (Schoenberg’s use of the “Sh’ma Yisroel,” the Jewish profession of faith). Both explore, in Gilbert’s words, “the triumph of faith and the indomitable nature of the human spirit.”
The fundamental commitments to contemporary music and to collaboration with significant performers and composers that have marked these eight years are the focus of the second of these programs (also in May). Violinist Leonidas Kavakos, the 2016–17 season’s Artist-in-Residence, was featured in the towering Violin Concerto by Brahms, whose works were always at the heart of Gilbert’s programming. Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Philharmonic’s Composer-in-Residence through next season and a frequent, welcome guest as a conductor, is represented with the New York Premiere of Wing on Wing, a highly regarded 2004 work. And Aeriality (2010–11), by the young Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, the current Kravis Emerging Composer, completes the program.
The third of Gilbert’s final programs (June 1, 3, and 6) focuses on a single work, but what a work — Das Rheingold, the powerful and atmospheric preamble to Wagner’s epic operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. Featured among the stellar cast of vocalists is the bass-baritone Eric Owens, who was Artist-in-Residence last season, and who made his role debut as Wagner’s Wotan at Lyric Opera of Chicago earlier this season. This mythic drama crowns a sequence of memorable operatic offerings from the Philharmonic during Gilbert’s tenure, which started so indelibly with Le Grand Macabre and continued in imaginative presentations of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen and even, in Philharmonic 360, a portion of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Opera wasn’t the only beneficiary of Gilbert’s design to expand the Philharmonic’s repertoire, as its ventures into not only ballet but musical theater (Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd), monodrama (Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake), and even live accompaniment to film (2001 and Manhattan) proved resoundingly.
With Gilbert’s final subscription program (June 8–10) comes a taste of what the future holds: the debut of his idea of an orchestra comprising musicians from around the globe. In these performances of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, the New York Philharmonic will be joined by players invited from countries including Cuba and Venezuela, not to mention Iran, Iraq, and Israel, as well as special guests, including Yo-Yo Ma and Wynton Marsalis. Far more than a stellar send-off, the concerts herald one principal facet of the next phase of Gilbert’s career: fostering an initiative that will bring together a similar international ensemble to function in the service of cultural diplomacy.
“How can we, as musicians, do our small part to be a positive forum, to help effect social change and respond to adversity in a world faced with unprecedented challenges?” Gilbert pondered rhetorically, explaining his newest enterprise. “I wanted these final concerts to call attention to the ways in which music can unite people across borders and spread a message of harmony and shared humanity.”
Gilbert won’t be gone for long before he returns to action in the 2017–18 season. He will lead two of the orchestra’s three programs in Bernstein’s Philharmonic: A Centennial Festival, one featuring the Serenade (with violinist Joshua Bell) and Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah (October 25–31), the other to include Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs (featuring Philharmonic Principal Clarinet Anthony McGill) and the Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety (with Makoto Ozone, November 2–4).
And in one more noteworthy appearance, Gilbert will preside over the Philharmonic’s 175th birthday concerts (December 6–9). In addition to two works that were included on the Philharmonic’s very first concert, on December 7, 1842 — Weber’s Oberon Overture and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 — he opted to include Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for winds to showcase four Philharmonic Principals: clarinetist McGill, oboist Liang Wang, bassoonist Judith LeClair, and horn player Philip Myers. In so doing, he turns the spotlight where he always firmly maintains it belongs: on the extraordinary players of the New York Philharmonic, whose collective legacy Gilbert unquestionably has helped to burnish.
Steve Smith is director of publications at National Sawdust, a performing-arts incubator in Brooklyn. He previously contributed regularly to The New York Times and worked as an editor for the Boston Globe and Time Out New York.
This article originally appeared in the New York Philharmonic edition of Playbill.