Throughout the course of his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert has earned a reputation as a steadfast advocate for contemporary music and living composers. That perception was not one he specifically set out to cultivate, but certainly it’s an understandable byproduct of successful high-profile events like the orchestra’s memorable presentations of György Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre at Avery Fisher Hall (now David Geffen Hall) in 2010 and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s monumental Gruppen at the Park Avenue Armory in 2012, not to mention two major concert initiatives: the new-music series Contact! – which Gilbert personally helped to rescue from cancellation during this, his farewell season, and the NY Phil Biennial, a contemporary-music celebration that found the orchestra collaborating with artists, ensembles, and institutions from throughout the city and across the country.
Halfway through his final season, and with Contact! returning for two chamber-music concerts at National Sawdust, Gilbert talked at length about his association with new music as part of a broad mix of objectives he pursued with the New York Philharmonic, and offered glimpses of what his future might hold. The interview took place in his Geffen Hall office the morning after he had collaborated with pianist Emanuel Ax and the Philharmonic in the world premiere of HK Gruber’s Piano Concerto – a work the Philharmonic had commissioned jointly with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich.
STEVE SMITH: During your time as music director of the New York Philharmonic, you’ve been characterized as a new-music advocate, even as a new-music specialist, even as you’ve said on several occasions that you don’t think that’s accurate. I wondered if we might start to take a look back over your seasons on the podium, talk about the things you’ve achieved, and present an accurate picture of what your goals and aspirations actually were?
ALAN GILBERT: You know, the musicians that I’ve admired have tended to be hard to pin down, hard to typecast, and often have had a capacity to do a wide range of music well, like Leonard Bernstein or Esa-Pekka Salonen or Yo-Yo Ma. And without exception, they’ve also been interested in the wider implications of music in our society. This kind of omnivorous appetite for the richness that music embodies is not just of interest to me; it’s absolutely crucial to how I think about myself as a person and as a musician. And I think it happens that this kind of wide-ranging interest in many different kinds of music – I wouldn’t necessarily say all different kinds of music, although I am interested in all music, a priori – but for a modern orchestra, I think that not just because it can but an orchestra should play an incredibly rich tapestry of musical styles, and repertoire that spans the ages and brings people together and creates a kind of implicit statement that supports the richness of human culture. It sounds very lofty, but I actually think that that’s possible.
Basically we’re in the Western art-music tradition, and that is the core of what we do. And I think if you look at what I’ve done over the years, that has been the core of what I do. But that doesn’t mean that we only play Beethoven. It certainly doesn’t mean we do concerts that are all-Beethoven. Sometimes we do; Beethoven is actually one of the few composers, I think, who can stand to be seen in a one-composer concert. I mean, you wouldn’t want to do an all-Kabalevsky concert, with all due respect to Kabalevsky.
I also happen to think, philosophically, that music can shed light on music, creating interesting juxtapositions and comparisons. From the micro-level, even within a piece any music that is worth anything is made up of variety and references and suggestions and alternations of character. It is all about variety: within a piece, within the first half of a program, within an entire program, within a month of programming, within a season, and over the span of eight seasons. To create an environment in which people are able to step back and see the bigger picture, and to notice similarities, notice trends, notice influences, notice rebellions against tradition – I think that is part of what an orchestra can do, to show music in all its complexity and variety.
So much of what we see and hear in music is based on maybe the greatest orchestral composer ever, Beethoven. I mean, he created an orchestral world that has never been surpassed in terms of variety and color, the demand on the musicians, and the ambition he had as a sort of philosopher to express what there is in life. And even he has antecedents – Haydn and the aesthetics of the sublime, trying to show the force of nature in all its tremendous, sometimes terrifying might. But Beethoven laid down the gauntlet for all subsequent composers. Everything after Beethoven, I think it’s fair to say, was either a reaction to try to equal it or to reject it. He’s powerful even in the composers who have rejected him – although he’s impossible to reject. Rejecting somebody is kind of implicitly accepting them on some level. You can’t be indifferent to Beethoven.
It’s difficult, I think, for composers these days, because there is not an immediate reference point such as Beethoven that you can look to today. It’s almost too open, the ways that people can choose to compose, so there isn’t that iconic reference point, such as Beethoven, that either you accept or reject. It’s like you’re out at sea, and you don’t know which way to point your boat. It’s also hard for audiences, because you never know what to expect when you hear a new piece – if you have some familiarity with the composer you may, but essentially if there’s a new piece, who knows? I mean, I didn’t even really know what Gruber’s piece was going to turn out to be. This was a much more kaleidoscopic, complex piece than any other that I’ve done of his, and I’ve done a lot. So it’s hard to listen to a new piece and have a handle on it.
I remember sitting there last night thinking, I am so happy I don’t have to file an overnight review of this particular piece, because it’s not one that I’d feel comfortable giving a snap assessment.
Yeah. He’s a very smart composer, and there is a progression of moods. But there is also a stream-of-consciousness dimension to the way he wrote it: It just kind of goes, and it hangs onto an idea and obsesses on it for a while, and then it does something else. So it’s only now, after three days of dealing with the piece, that Manny [Emanuel Ax] and I are saying, yeah, it’s starting to feel like something. And so for us, having studied the piece – and Manny’s been practicing it for hundreds of hours – to say now that we’re just starting to get it…what can we expect of our audience?
And our critics?
And our critics, for that matter. Part of the reason I do new music is to create a receptive atmosphere for new music. In other words, it’s not always because I think this piece is essential to experience. That having been said, of course I try to choose pieces that I think are going to be interesting for our audience to hear. I would never willfully program something that I think is not important to hear, or not interesting to hear. Okay, sometimes we have programmed things that are not interesting to hear, but that’s not intentional; that’s just a necessary kind of casualty of reality. But even those pieces are part of the overall context that creates the attitude of receptivity in our audience.
And to speak about a new piece – it almost doesn’t matter what you say about a piece to an audience, but you say something. That’s why that actually does annoy me when critics refer to the remarks I make and say, “his not so interesting remarks about the piece.” It’s like, wait a second, don’t you understand why I do this? It’s to kind of break down the barrier that many people naturally have when they see a new piece on the program. Anything that can sort of crack that wall of resistance is helpful.
The point is not to give a learned disquisition about the compositional method. The point is to say, “Hey, I like this piece, and there’s a great moment about halfway through where suddenly the chime comes in; listen for that, you’ll know you’re halfway through, and that’s striking, because it changes from that point, and suddenly what has been about leading up to something is now about resolution.” That’s already enough to get somebody into the piece, and then they’ll listen to it with different ears. It’s not particularly learned or insightful, but rather than just having people say, “Okay, when is this piece going to be over?” if you give them anything at all – or just say, you know what, I like this piece – that also will get them into a different place. So often it doesn’t matter what people write, but when they say that… don’t you understand it’s all about trying to get people at least to give it a chance? “Give This Piece a Chance!” [laughs]
In terms of advocacy, it’s not that you want to beg an audience for forbearance, but at this point audiences now have been told again and again, “It’s okay that you hated new music for a while, because the atonal and 12-tone composers screwed things up and everything was bad for a while, but now composers have learned how to compose again.” It’s almost as if they’ve been given permission…
Yeah, but that’s a bad message. I mean, I do think people should feel complete liberty to dislike something. That’s fine. I do think that it’s okay to hear something that you don’t like. It’s informative.
You wouldn’t go to a modern art museum and expect that you’re going to like everything you see.
The difference is you’re captive when you’re in the audience. You can just breeze by a painting that’s not interesting to you; if it’s a 20-minute piece, you’ve got to devote 20 minutes of your life to it. Big deal – just deal. To me, in a way, and hopefully not in a condescending way, I am trying to educate the audience about what music can be. And it’s not only about Beethoven, with all due respect; I mean, I love Beethoven more than any other composer, but if you’re on a steady diet of Beethoven, it would become less interesting. Even Beethoven.
I also think that sort of globally, creating an atmosphere in which composers feel valued, and in which they are inspired to continue to try to compose, because that is the hardest thing that any musician does… what composers do is the thing that I think is most difficult and most worthy of admiration, and we should be supporting that. Orchestras are institutions that in a very obvious way can do that.
…what composers do is the thing that I think is most difficult and most worthy of admiration, and we should be supporting that.
I don’t want it to sound like all of my motivations are sort of oblique and not direct, but I think there are so many reasons why it’s important to create an atmosphere that is tolerant of and enthusiastic about contemporary music. If I could choose what music to conduct, that sort of desert-island question about what to conduct, it might be Bach for the rest of my life. But I think it has been important to create an atmosphere of kind of wide-eyed enthusiasm about all different kinds of music.
It happens that I’m capable of doing complicated new music without too much trouble, and I think it’s harder for people to measure quality in a performance of a new piece, because there’s no reference point. It’s hard to know what it’s supposed to sound like, and if there’s a sort of superficial mastery of the material, then people say, “Oh, wow, that’s a great performance.” So in a way, it’s not so interesting to me that people have said, “He’s good at this complicated stuff,” because I’m not sure that people really know what “good” is in this kind of music. It’s easier to criticize a performance of a Schubert symphony, because people tend to want to naturally look for the kind of handle of familiarity in all dimensions of this equation: the performers, the audience, the critics, the composers. It’s easy to sort of look for that, and that’s where people feel confident about putting their stake in the ground.
I actually think it’s hard for people to get their heads around the concept that it’s possible to be good at more than one type of music, or one thing. And that’s one of the greatest strengths of the New York Philharmonic as an orchestra: the capacity to master an incredible range of styles, from Baroque to absolute cutting-edge contemporary music. And there are very few orchestras that can do that. As great as people acknowledge the New York Philharmonic to be, I think the New York Philharmonic still doesn’t get enough credit for doing what it does, week after week, in the toughest market in the world.
New York is the city in which the greatest orchestras in the world – and the not-greatest orchestras – come in and put on their A-game. Most orchestras would not dare play in New York until they’d played a program multiple times and really made it possible to put their best foot forward. We don’t have that luxury: On a normal week we’ll do three or four rehearsals, play the concert, and appropriately enough we are judged on the same standard that visiting orchestra X from wherever is when they come play their concert. And the New York Philharmonic not only does very well, but completely smokes just about every other orchestra. It’s a completely fabricated construction, but if we switched places with any other orchestra and had them play the New York Philharmonic’s schedule, then it would become very obvious, very quickly, what we’re talking about. And I mean any other orchestra.
The New York Philharmonic has areas in which it needs to improve and think about things, and one of the weaknesses of the New York Philharmonic is knowing how to improve, because it’s so good in so many ways. And that has also been my ulterior motive in programming the widest possible range of music, because I think approaching different music differently, let’s just say, is one of the areas that I think needs the most attention at the New York Philharmonic. Finding a kind of different attitude, a different mindset, a different sense of style for different kinds of music… I’m starting to be at the point where I’m looking back and thinking about what I’ve achieved and haven’t achieved, and if there’s any one thing that I feel most proud of, it’s trying to create a richer palette of sound and style. And that comes from doing lots of different kinds of music, and trying to elicit a different attitude about sound for each composer and style and epoch for music.
Kurt Masur did new music, Lorin Maazel did some new music, but you’ve been stamped as being an advocate from nearly the beginning. To what do we attribute this? Is it just that you were visibly enthusiastic and consistently offering up projects like Le Grand Macabre and Gruppen, initiatives like Contact! and the Biennial?
I wouldn’t step back from any credit I’ve gotten for doing all these things, and there have been a lot of initiatives that have focused on and capitalized on new music. I think 21st-century audiences can get a lot from dealing with 21st-century music, not to mention 20th-century music. I mean, I always say I’ve not been trying to get the New York Philharmonic to the 21st century; I’ve been trying to bring them into the 20th century. [laughs] I actually think that there’s more than people realize to be gained from appreciating Ligeti. That’s not exactly new music, but it passes for new music.
I think the musicians also appreciate the challenge of accessing different capabilities and capacities. I really think that orchestras, and musicians, generally, need to stand behind support of what is happening in composition today. So I’m extremely proud of the Biennial. I’m on record many times having said that I’m not a believer in all-contemporary concerts, and that having been said, the Biennial is an achievement I’m really proud of. I think it’s fantastic and appropriate that the New York Philharmonic is the host organization for this event that has brought together music organizations from around the country and different constituents and organizations and institutions from around the city – this never used to happen.
So there’s the contemporary-music dimension to these things, but there’s always more resonance, or at least I try to have more resonance. And one of the things I really wanted the Biennial to achieve was a sense of cooperation, which never used to exist. There was very much this kind of ivory tower attitude: Not only did the New York Philharmonic not care what other institutions around the city were doing, they didn’t care what other people thought of the New York Philharmonic. And I think we can’t forget whom we are serving: It’s the city of New York.
The New York Philharmonic happens to have an international reach, so as the world gets smaller – although people are fighting against it tooth and nail these days – we have our partnerships at the Barbican and Music Academy of the West and Shanghai and stuff… it’s all not that far, really. The world is smaller. And the New York Philharmonic does have the clout to make these connections, and that is very much now in the DNA, and I think I’ve had something to do with creating that new attitude.
But certainly within the city, it’s not an accident that I decided to teach at Juilliard as opposed to Curtis, because it’s here in New York. I think it’s exciting to have a connection at the Metropolitan Museum. I’ve tried to create collaborative projects with the Metropolitan Opera; they didn’t go anywhere. I had the idea to give the New York Philharmonic the chance to play in the pit at the Met; perhaps we could rehearse a project that they wouldn’t be able to fit into their schedule, and give the Met Orchestra the chance to play symphonic concerts here. You know, do a swap. And there was some interest in that for a while, but for understandable reasons – logistically, it’s hard to arrange; they play so many performances a week, and they’re on a kind of treadmill that they can’t get off of… I actually think that would be good for both orchestras, and really exciting for the city to see this kind of collaboration.
I reached out to all my peer orchestras when I started about creating a kind of connection and synergy of programming when they came to New York. There were a couple of sort of nibbles of interest – I get along really well with [Boston Symphony Orchestra music director] Andris Nelsons and with [Philadelphia Orchestra music director] Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and we had some initial discussions that were interesting: What if two or three great orchestras collaborated on a two-week festival in New York that involved programming at Lincoln Center and at Carnegie Hall? How exciting would that be? And nothing has happened. What can I say? I had the idea, I did my best, and it remains to my successor to either do or not. But when the whole phenomenon of professional music organizations is so embattled, wouldn’t it be nice to show a united front, say that we’re not trying to kill each other but we’re trying to support music in general? I’m surprised that there’s less interest in this, generally.
At heart, this idea of inclusion and bringing disparate elements together kind of is the running thread, also, through the programming. It’s not a separate subject, and that’s why I’m trying to talk about all the different potential benefits, the less obvious layers of benefit, that can come from having a varied approach to programming. I beg indulgence as an outgoing music director to be able to talk about my philosophy this way, but it is a kind of core philosophy.
Contact! has been a major initiative of your tenure, and it’s also been in the news not long ago for having nearly ended and then being saved in an unorthodox manner. You clearly felt strongly enough about the series to spare it from the chopping block at personal expense, yet coverage of its salvation suggested the series had never been cost-effective in terms of expenditure per patron. What’s the value, to you, of the series?
I think Contact! has been, for the people who participated in it, really exciting, and really important. And that group includes the musicians, the composers, the people who’ve planned it, and the audience. Do I wish more people came to Contact! concerts? Yeah, of course. And I think there hasn’t been a complete institutional alignment within the New York Philharmonic about what we were trying to achieve with Contact! and marketing is not a science. I have the sense that we could have presented it with more obvious belief, or more support, or more pizazz; I have the feeling there was something a little bit underplayed about the way we’ve presented it, as if we’re hedging our bets on it. And if something costs a certain amount of money, maybe you don’t want to devote too much of that to marketing.
I kind of wish that we had given it a little bit more prominence; I have the sense, without being able to prove it, obviously, that we could have created more excitement. Let’s put it this way: There are dedicated contemporary-music ensembles, but there is no contemporary ensemble that is able to play this music with as much mastery, flair, and understanding as the New York Philharmonic. I think the New York Philharmonic is the best contemporary-music ensemble I know, despite the fact that they’re not specialists. And that is also not unrelated to my not thinking of myself as a specialist: I’m not saying that I’m the best, but I’m saying it’s possible to do it, even if you’re not a specialist.
What I like about the way the New York Philharmonic plays contemporary music is that it’s pretty damn perfect, but they bring a kind of human dimension to the music that I think is often lacking in specialist contemporary-music ensemble performances – and I’m actually including all the famous ones in that. The musicians are not unanimously or equally enthusiastic across the board about playing this music, but generally it’s been a self-selecting group, and the people who have participated in Contact! have been deeply committed to it. And I think it’s an important outlet for them to be able to do it.
I do think that there’s an audience; I mean, it’s New York City, for god’s sake. There are millions of people here. There have got to be more than 500 people who are interested in this music. If they somehow don’t believe that the New York Philharmonic can do this stuff – I think that might be part of it, because I think the image of the New York Philharmonic is this venerable, iconic classical-music institution. Why would they be playing in some alternative venue? How could they be better than whatever Brooklyn group? It’s possible that that’s part of what’s going on. But I think that it’s great that we’re now collaborating with National Sawdust and places that have street cred, because I think that chips away at this untouchable veneer that the orchestra unfortunately still has. There is no reason why we can’t play a kick-ass Bruckner symphony and a totally on-the-money performance of Andy Akiho’s music – and in fact, we do it.
There is no reason why we can’t play a kick-ass Bruckner symphony and a totally on-the-money performance of Andy Akiho’s music – and in fact, we do it.
Inasmuch as it’s possible to talk about your future plans, to what extent do you anticipate modern music being a part of your agenda going forward?
Well, I’ve received some offers to take positions in other places, and I’m not in a hurry to say yes to any. Let’s put it this way: There are a few areas that I’m excited about. One is not working so hard on administration. [laughs] Another is opera. And another is exploring this new paradigm of what an orchestra can be in the 21st century, and what an orchestra appropriately should be. So if I were ever to take on another orchestra – and there is one situation that is of interest to me that I am mulling over right now – it would be based on finding a situation in which the whole organization, from top to bottom, was interested in both preserving the beautiful traditions of symphonic music and the traditional format of the concert, but combining it – not in a way that shunted it off to the side, but in a meaningful way – with a new way of interacting with the audience, and with a new, explicit role as an agent of cultural diplomacy.
I suppose that when you’ve led the New York Philharmonic, how many places can you go that won’t feel like a step down?
In many real ways, anything else is a step down after the New York Philharmonic – which is also liberating, because I’m not trying to prove anything. Immediately when they announced I was leaving, you started reading speculation: “Why is he leaving? Is there nothing to go to? What is he going to?” And that is not the way I think at all. I’m not leaving to go someplace else. And it’s not one of those things: “I’m going to spend time with my family” and “I’m going to write my book.” It’s incredible how people assume things about this kind of career move, which is never how I’ve thought.
I’m very much on the case of this U.N. project; that’s definitely going to be a big component in my life over the next years. [Editor’s note: On December 14, 2016, Gilbert announced plans to collaborate with the United Nations in forming an international orchestra to promote cultural diplomacy.] And contemporary music… I’m sure I will continue to do it. For me, contemporary music is often a good way to make connections within a city. That’s certainly a function that Contact! has served, and the Biennial.
I will look with interest at the process of remodeling the hall here – from afar, but with great interest, because I think that having the appropriate physical space in which to operate…it’s not a substitute for content, but it can definitely help with the delivery, and also the way the world at large sees an institution. The Sydney Opera House, for example, is an iconic building; somehow they haven’t quite come into their own as a symbol of the city, but that’s what people think of in Sydney. I just had a talk with [New York Times contributor] Corinna [da Fonseca-Wollheim] about the Elbphilharmonie [concert hall], because that has the potential to be that same kind of architectural icon for the city of Hamburg, and I think it will also potentially change the nature of the orchestra itself. They’ve changed their name, the NDR Hamburg; now they’re the Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, which seems a little bit weird, but if you think about it, the Concertgebouw [Orchestra] is also named after its building.
We’ll see what happens. As a destination for visiting orchestras and visiting artists, Hamburg is more important now because of that hall, so I think there will be a kind of shift there. That’s another very interesting situation to look at, and potentially will give lessons for New York if they see what’s going to happen there.
I have nice relationships with La Scala, where I just did Porgy and Bess, and the Semperoper in Dresden. They’ve asked me to do a number of projects over the years, and we’ll see what happens. The Stockholm Opera is also trying to figure out what they are going to be doing over the next few years; I’ve only conducted there once, but for me it has the interesting advantage of being in Stockholm, where my wife still has her job as a cellist in the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and we still have our house outside of the city. So without completely tipping my hand, these are areas that are of interest.
The New York Philharmonic presents Contact! at National Sawdust on January 23; www.nationalsawdust.org. Alan Gilbert conducts the Juilliard Orchestra in music by Shostakovich and Dutilleux at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, on January 24; www.julliard.edu.