Alan Gilbert is the first native-born New Yorker to hold the post, and he follows such luminaries as Gustav Mahler and Leonard Bernstein. But the shoes he's stepping into are already comfortable: He literally grew up with the Philharmonic. Gilbert's parents played in the violin section, and his mom still does.
The New York Philharmonic's new music director, Alan Gilbert, is the first native-born New Yorker to hold a post held by such luminaries as Gustav Mahler and Leonard Bernstein. But the shoes he's stepping into are already comfortable: He literally grew up with the Philharmonic. Gilbert's parents played in the violin section, and his mom still does.
Some of Gilbert's most cherished childhood memories involve hanging out where his parents worked.
"I was always excited to be around the orchestra," he says. "I loved going on tour with the orchestra. And people even playing today remember when I was the ... I don't know, call it 'the little orchestra brat.' "
Now, they call him boss.
Shy And Serious
Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic for The New York Times, says Gilbert is a surprising choice for the Philharmonic's top post.
"Alan Gilbert is 42, and he's young, but he's not flashy," Tommasini says. "He's a very serious, a little self-effacing, rather shy musician. And yet I'm convinced that New Yorkers will love those qualities about him, and that his sincerity and his devotion to communicating and to reaching people will really come through."
Communicating to New Yorkers is very much a part of Gilbert's agenda. This season, the Philharmonic opened its final dress rehearsal to the public and broadcast its opening-night concert for free on a big screen in Lincoln Center's plaza.
"I have the hope and the ambition to make the New York Philharmonic something that all New Yorkers can be aware of and proud of, whether or not they come to concerts," Gilbert says. "It's a shame when people somehow have the idea that they're not going to be able to appreciate or understand what's happening, because, you know, it's pretty straightforward and pretty accessible what we do. And part of our job is to make sure that people know that we are really there for them."
In a lot of ways, Gilbert represents a tectonic shift for the Philharmonic. Carter Brey is the orchestra's principal cellist; he says it's the first time he's worked with a music director who's younger than he is.
"I'm relating to him on a generational level in a way I've never related to a music director before — the last two music directors have been from my parents' generation," Bray says. "So I'm relating to Alan as ... not as a musical equal, because he's my boss, in that sense, but as a generational equal; someone who grew up imbibing the same cultural currents that I did."
Brey says that Gilbert is kind of the anti-maestro.
"I'll never forget the day, shortly after he was hired, that I ran into him in the basement level of Avery Fisher Hall, getting to know the people who work in the IT department," Brey says. "I'd never seen anything like that before. He literally was getting to know the organization from the ground up."
Gilbert is already making decisions that are putting his own stamp on the Philharmonic. Where most orchestras would choose an instrumentalist as their artist-in-residence, he chose a singer: baritone Thomas Hampson.
"It took me by surprise," Hampson says. "My first question is, 'Are you really sure you want a singer to do this, right off the bat?' And he laughed and he said, 'You know, what I want is a musician who has a whole bunch of different kinds of interests and who likes to talk about them, and who can augment the season we'll put together and work into the season that we put together and, you know, building a team.' So, I said, you know, 'You're on.' "
Hampson will be everywhere this season: performing and touring with the orchestra and talking with audiences. But Tommasini says that where audiences will immediately notice a difference is in Gilbert's programming choices.
"He started on principle: 'I'm going to begin my tenure with a new piece by our new composer-in-residence,' " Tommasini says.
Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg wrote the piece EXPO for opening night. It's the first time the New York Philharmonic has played a world premiere on opening night since Leonard Bernstein played a new piece by Aaron Copland in 1962. Lindberg says he was amazed that Gilbert wanted to start the season — and his tenure as music director — with a new work.
"I wanted to do a piece that really would have that opening sort of element in it," Lindberg says. "So, it's like an exposition of his era. It's a new epoch. It's a virtuoso piece — plenty of noise and plenty of music."
Plenty of music is what Gilbert wants to give New Yorkers; new works, right next to masterpieces of the classical repertoire.
"Everything we do is to let people experience music in all its glory and in all its variety," Gilbert says.