There’s a new maestro in town

A New York native with Japanese roots, Gilbert takes the helm of the city's premier orchestra

by Chiho Iuchi

The New York Philharmonic led by conductor Alan Gilbert, who debuted as its new music director at the opening gala concert on Sept. 16, heads off for an Asian tour in October, with Tokyo as the first stop.

“I pretty much grew up with the New York Philharmonic,” says Gilbert, a 42-year-old New York native and the son of NYP violinists (his father has retired, but his mother continues to be a member). Gilbert has attended NYP concerts and rehearsals since childhood, and has also accompanied his parents on world tours, particularly spending a lot of time in Japan, as his mother is Japanese. His sister, Jennifer, is also a top-level violinist who plays in Japan frequently.

Gilbert learned the violin as a youth and later studied composition at Harvard University. He went on to conduct at the renowned Curtis Institute of Music and Julliard School of Music.

Tsutomu Tsuji, who became Gilbert’s first manager in 1993 (and continued the role until 2006), recounts his first impression of Gilbert as a conductor: “I saw Alan conducting at a music seminar for young musicians held in Japan in 1992. Alan participated mostly as a violinist, except for during Mendelssohn’s octet, in which he performed as conductor. I was so impressed by his conducting.”

Before long, Gilbert won the first prize in the conductor section at the Geneva International Music Competition in 1994, the first of many awards, which led him to make a career as a conductor. He served as an assistant conductor at the Cleveland Orchestra from 1995 to 1997 and was chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra from 2000 to 2008.

“Besides being precise in rhythm, what I think is wonderful about Alan is his sense of balance between command and freedom,” says Tsuji. “I still remember how he let a flutist perform his solo independently, rather than giving him too many signals, while giving a soft swing with his left arm that suggested other players should follow together. Another technique, which Alan may not be conscious of, is that he often looks in the air following the extension of his baton, which makes it like a magic wand that creates a kind of flavor for the sound.”

Gilbert guest conducted many prestigious European orchestras, such as Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as top orchestras in the United States and Japan.

“Always being frank and honest, he seems to capture the heart of orchestra members. Above all, Alan does really love music and simply believes in its power,” says Tsuji.

Gilbert, himself, gives his opinion on classical music, saying, “I think classical music obviously does not have as wide an audience as other kinds of music. But I am not a pessimist. The number of people who go to classical music concerts is bigger than ever before.

“It is true that there is a perception of classical music like, ‘Oh, it’s not for me. You need to have special knowledge. You need to be able to dress up.’ There are people who think this way. That’s too bad.

“You don’t know when to clap? You can just listen to music and, if you like it, just clap. It’s easy to forget that in Beethoven’s day, each movement of the symphony was presented separately, and sometimes there was so much clapping in between that they had to repeat the movement.

“What classical music can offer is powerful, universal and absolutely not dying away. If you take a message out of the music, then probably more people will realize, appreciate and identify what we are doing with classical music.”

The NYP has a long history of bringing music to the world, including an attention-grabbing trip to North Korea in February 2008.

The upcoming “Asian Horizons” tour will visit Japan, South Korea and Singapore, and it will herald the NYP’s debut performances in Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates.

“The tour is a wonderful part of the orchestra’s activities. After being on tour, the orchestra’s artistic level is higher. Of course it’s nice to reach new audiences. Also there may be the idea of ‘concert diplomacy’ like being ambassador of our culture,” says Gilbert.

The program includes “EXPO,” a new work commissioned to Magnus Lindberg and premiered at the last NYP opening gala concert on Sept. 16, along with symphonies by Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz and Mahler, as well as concertos with violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann and pianist Emanuel Ax.

It should not be easy for a relatively young “son of the NYP,” to bear a daunting responsibilities as the music director of the NYP, which has been built up by maestros such as Gustav Mahler, Arturo Toscanini and Leonard Bernstein since its establishment in 1842. But Gilbert, who has moved back to New York from Stockholm with his Swedish cellist wife and two children, told Tsuji in a phone call that, “There is pressure. But no stress.”

“I have been always impressed by the NYP,” says Gilbert. “First, as a child in the audience. Now, actually asking something of the orchestra and having it come back directly to me. It is an indescribable sensation. And the NYP members never give less than their best.”

“Asian Horizons: Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic” takes place Oct. 8 through Oct. 24. Japanese performances will be held at Suntory Hall in Akasaka on Oct. 8-9 at 7 p.m., and Oct. 10 at 6 p.m. Tickets are ¥9,000-¥29,000. There will also be a “Young People’s Concert” at the same venue Oct. 10 at 11 a.m. Tickets cost ¥2,500. For more details, call (0570) 66-9960, or visit www.kajimotomusic.com