An Interview with Alan Gilbert

By · Illustration · Date 5/22/2019

An orchestra is like a pendulum. Pull it in one direction—toward a more contemporary, progressive repertoire, say—and eventually it will swing back toward the crowd-pleasers. This regrettable pattern can be observed whenever an enterprising music director leaves. In Boston, the profoundly flawed choice of James Levine nevertheless shaped the idea of what an orchestra can be for a generation, as Ben Miller has sensitively written. Levine was followed by the pleasantly conventional Andris Nelsons. In Berlin, Simon Rattle’s often difficult tenure saw the Philharmonic turn into a leading light for new music internationally; Kirill Petrenko, in his first season as music director, appears to prefer the most basic warhorses. And in New York, Alan Gilbert, who achieved success with repertoire like György Ligeti’s classic opera “Le Grand Macabre,” was followed by Jaap van Zweden, whose reputation is strongest in repertoire like Wagner. (Van Zweden has made some promising overtures to new music.) Meanwhile, other audiences benefit from a conductor’s courage. The 2019-20 season will be Alan Gilbert’s first with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester in Hamburg. On paper, a German radio orchestra, with the system’s long tradition of advocacy for new repertoire, would seem to be an excellent fit for Gilbert. Over two conversations, one in a Hamburg café, the other on the phone, we talked about how taste is made, gender quotas for orchestras, self-doubt, and parenthood.

VAN: Your first season as music director of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester in Hamburg was announced recently. It’s heavy on new music: Unsuk Chin is composer in residence, and programs feature works by Sofia Gubaidulina, Ligeti, Kurtág, Xenakis, and others.

Alan Gilbert: I’m happy. You know, I don’t think of myself as a specialist, and I don’t particularly set out to cover certain bases. I’m just interested in a lot of different things, and I try to explore the areas that turn me on. It tends to go into this kind of broad, varied direction, which I like.

You’ve spoken before about your battle to get ambitious new music on New York Philharmonic programs. Did you find that easier here in Hamburg?

Frankly, yes. And I think there are a number of reasons for that. I always talk about not going outside the box, but just having a bigger box. And in New York it can feel like you’re going absolutely outside the box, even when you’re doing things that should be inside the box. With the Elbphilharmonie, it feels like there’s a lot of room to fill up with imaginative things. Sorry to push that metaphor way beyond its logical capacity [laughs].

You personally are conducting repertoire from Haydn to a new violin concerto by Enno Poppe. It sometimes feels like classical music ensembles are becoming increasingly specialized, with excellent groups focusing on particular centuries, countries, and composers.

The modern symphony orchestra really should be versatile. We’re doing “My Fair Lady” and “Kraft,” by Magnus Lindberg, in one season. That should be idiomatic for the symphony orchestra.

What is the argument for the modern symphony orchestra to cover so many centuries of repertoire, for you?

I don’t know if there needs to be an argument for the orchestra to do that [laughs]. What I aspire to is a relationship between the orchestra and the community that we serve. It’s about writing the story together, about sharing this musical experience that lasts more than one concert. It lasts more than one week or even one year. It’s more about kind of living life with music.

One of the things that I think of as my job is to have taste, and then to share that with the audience. I’m a professional musician, so in that sense I’m a specialist. But I’m also just a normal guy who likes music. I figure, if I’m able to get excited about a piece by Jonny Greenwood or Xenakis or Stravinsky or Dvořák or Josquin, then maybe there are other people who are also able to get excited not just by the music but by this range of music.

When I present new pieces that the audience doesn’t know, I very specifically don’t want it to be this isolated experience. It’s not planned yet, but I will do a piece by Sean Sheperd, a young American composer. People don’t necessary know his music, but if they know me and my taste, maybe that will predispose them to be at least open. I’m not saying they’ll love it—they might not even like it. But the simple fact that I’ve selected that piece may be enough to make them think, “Oh, I’ll give it a try.” My connection with music will hopefully infuse how people in our audience think about music. I mean, it’s pretty lofty, but I think that’s what it’s about.

The new music that you’ve recorded with the New York Philharmonic and that you’re doing in Hamburg is eclectic. How did your taste in the contemporary repertoire get formed?

I’m kind of an omnivore. I’m potentially interested in just about anything. That’s not to say I like everything, but I think we’re all sort of victims of circumstance. We know what we know, what we’ve been exposed to. There are a lot of composers who are current in Europe who I’m not as familiar with, simply because I haven’t been around. Magnus Lindberg is someone I’m very close to, so I’ve relied on him a lot for introductions and suggestions about new music. We happen to have quite aligned taste.

In New York, we did the Biennial twice. They discontinued it—no surprise, because I think they are trying to turn the page and start a new chapter with their new music director. Too bad, because I thought it was great for New York, and if I were them I would have kept it. But what it means is we’re going to be able to resurrect it here. I’m already talking to [Elbphilharmonie artistic director] Christoph Lieben-Seutter, and he’s totally into it. The whole premise was to present a huge selection of music that’s from our time. But I’ve always been very up-front: this is not encyclopedic. So there’s a certain amount of editorializing that necessarily goes into it.

The gender disparity in orchestral programming has become a huge topic in the classical music industry. The NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester’s 2019-20 season does better than most, largely because Unsuk Chin is composer in residence. Was the issue of gender imbalance something you were conscious of when you chose her?

The fact that she’s a woman had exactly nothing to do with the fact that we chose her. I think she’s one of the great composers working today. But I’m not going to lie to you: that calculation does figure into our conversation. How could it not?

Many orchestras don’t seem to consider it.

Yeah. I think it’s a healthy change. It’s absolutely the right thing to go toward gender equality in performers, conductors, soloists, and composers. Some organizations say, “We’re going to have 50 percent female representation on our conductors list or our soloists list.” Hopefully, it eventually it will get to the point where that split naturally happens. I actually don’t think we should go to a goal of 50 percent representation in and of itself. It may happen one day, but I don’t think that’s the way to go, at least not short term; it’ll take a long time to achieve.

You know, it used to not even be subtle. I remember, not long ago, even female musicians would say, “I feel uncomfortable when it’s a woman conductor.” That you don’t hear anymore—which is progress.

Why don’t you think that programming should aim for 50 percent representation of women in the short term?

There are so many factors that go into decisions you make about who to program, and who you’d like to perform, that that shouldn’t be the overriding consideration. It’s just a very important thing that has to factor into the calculation and I’m glad that it is more accepted. You don’t have to push for that concept anymore to actually be taken into consideration. But it’s only one thing.

You mentioned representation of women conductors and soloists. That’s obviously important, but I’d suggest that having women composers on programs is maybe even more essential, because everyone talks about their loyalty to the composers’ intentions and the score. In some general way, the composer is the first person in the artistic hierarchy.

The composer is definitely the first person in the artistic hierarchy. Composing is the hardest thing that any musician does. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because the fact is that so many of the composers from the 18th and 19th centuries whose music we do are men. Is it—and this is a real question I have—the case that it’s truly the male composers that were good enough to endure? Or is there something in our conditioning, even today, that goes back hundreds of years, which has conditioned us to celebrate white male composers? And has that actually conditioned our taste? I don’t know.

Which way are you leaning?

I don’t know! And I say, “Well, Beethoven. Nobody’s better than Beethoven.” Am I wrong about that? I always thought of Beethoven as one of the top five composers. But what if I’m just so limited that I don’t see the greatness of some other female composers? I just did a piece by Lili Boulanger, “Faust et Hélène.” It’s very much like early Schoenberg: romantic, kind of overwrought, it sounds like his “Pelleas und Melisande.” My reaction was that it’s a really good piece, absolutely worth doing—she was 19 when she wrote it, it’s amazing—but it doesn’t quite rise to the level of “Verklärte Nacht,” say.

And then I read a very militant article that said, “It’s not that women composers aren’t good, it’s that we’ve been conditioned as a society not to appreciate different qualities.” And I’m thinking, “At what point do we have to say that we can’t trust our instinct or our taste?” This is a truly aesthetic, philosophical question. And I don’t know the answer.

I played a cocktail party game with my friends sometimes where you named your top five composers. And we didn’t even think about the fact that it was always just white men. I do think that Bach is one of the top five composers. But I’m starting to think…I don’t know, it’s all very confusing. It’s good, though! We’re asking questions that I didn’t even think to ask.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhB_umc9F84

In 2010, you did a beautiful performance of Gérard Grisey’s “Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil,” with Barbara Hannigan. Later, a composer I know who writes microtonal music had a reading with the New York Philharmonic under a different conductor. After the reading, a player asked him, “What exactly did you mean by a quarter tone?” Obviously, to do “Quatre chants,” you have to be able to play that interval precisely.

I can’t speak to your friend’s experience. But usually, when there’s that kind of attitude or pushback—and I’m not going to defend the musicians at all, because if that was his experience, that’s really unacceptable—that kind of irritation comes along with some other frustration. So if the situation was not well set up, or if they didn’t have enough time to prepare, if they don’t like the conductor, then they can start to get pissy about other things. I don’t want to criticize them, but this is just a general thing: they get more annoyed about musical things if generally the situation is not settled.

[With “Quatre chants”] I actually felt that they were unfailing professional and supportive and willing to try just about anything. I’m not just saying that. They were so open to working: we tuned the chords and got into this different way of hearing. And they were actually able to do it, because they’re so brilliant.

The New York Philharmonic has had a reputation for being a tough orchestra, but I never felt that. They have high standards, and they don’t like not to be able to do their best. So if you’re a young conductor and you’re not ready to face that, it can be very intimidating.

Were you ever the young conductor who had to face that, with other orchestras?

Yeah. It’s different now. I remember when every outing felt like an audition. Early on in your career, that’s how it is. You also doubt yourself. If it doesn’t go well, you think, “I’m a failure, I can’t do it, I’m not ready for this.” Now—happily it doesn’t happen very often—but if something doesn’t go so well, I don’t think to myself, “I’m not cut out for this.” Because I’ve done this work enough times that I figure I can basically do it. You win some and you lose some. It’s very hard to think that way when you’re just starting out.

https://soundcloud.com/newyorkphilharmonic/alan-gilbert-conducts-lindberg-grisey-plus-beethoven-and-mozart

In one interview, you said, “It happens that the chemistry isn’t right” between a conductor and an orchestra. As a conductor, how can you tell when that isn’t working?

It’s a little bit like, “How do we play a quarter tone?” If I got a question like that, I would think, “This isn’t going very well.” You know: [passive aggressive voice] “Do you want it short; or long?” It’s like there’s a lack of good will. It’s not necessarily the orchestra’s fault. But there are actually no impediments if it’s going well.

On the other hand, I’ve tried to learn not to take things personally. I remember early on, there was one week in particular that I really mishandled. It was one of the first weeks that I did with this orchestra, I won’t mention which one. There was a violist in this orchestra who was so sour, and she sat there looking at her—not her phone at the time, it was that long ago—but at her date book and rolling her eyes. And I took it personally; I got so surly and dark with the orchestra. It was a very unpleasant week for everybody, because this one person affected my mood. When I spoke with my friends in the orchestra later, they said, “Don’t worry about it, she’s like that with everybody!” But I couldn’t. I was too young and stupid.

Now I can say, if you feel like something’s wrong, it’s good not to let it get you down, because it becomes a spiral. It can just be one person who’s having a bad day. It’s better to stay positive no matter what.

Did you get invited back to conduct that orchestra?

I did! But I remember they said, “We hope it’s a better atmosphere next time” [laughs].

What do you think is the right length of time for a conductor and an orchestra to be together?

Not so long, actually. I think there is something to the phrase, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Though I admire the orchestras and conductors that can make a long go of it. It really depends on the chemistry. I’m kind of on the eight-year plan. I was in Stockholm for eight years and then eight years in New York. And that felt right for me. There are people who say it was a little too soon for me to leave New York, but I have other people—myself included—who say it was just the right time. There’s a horn player who I really admire who said, “Better to leave five years too early than five minutes too late.” Which actually has a lot of wisdom.

Having said that, I’m curious to see what will happen here [in Hamburg]. I have a five-year contract. I certainly don’t want to jinx it by putting a limit on it, or saying it should go longer or whatever. I feel there’s work to do and I’m excited to get into it.

And how many orchestras at a time do you think a conductor can handle?

I think that some of my colleagues work too much. I personally can’t do that. I mean, I work hard, I’m very busy, I spend a lot of time preparing and studying. That’s still work; but I like to have time off. I like to give things time to gestate in my system, and not just go from one thing into the next thing. It’s hard to have emotional energy—forget physical energy, because that you can usually motor through—it’s the emotional energy and the kind of spiritual call that I think that music making benefits from.

These people go from one week to the next week and they never stop. What about your family? I miss my kids when I’m working. It’s heady stuff if you’re always in demand, people always want to fly you places and pay you—it’s hard to say no. I know that. But I think it’s important to say no. I’m actually in a period in my life where I’m trying to cut back on guest conducting, so I can be with my kids more. My oldest daughter is 15. These 15 years have gone by as if no time has past. Presumably, in three years she’ll be out of the house.

I feel like every parent might say that, not just the ones who are international conductors.

Sure, but if I’m gone more than half the time, that goes by quickly. And these 15 years have gone by in a flash, which means that one-fifth of that time will go by in a fifth of a flash. ¶