(Posted this afternoon on the TONY Blog)
We can't remember the last time we were more pleased to admit we'd picked the wrong horse in a race. As officially announced in a press conference at Avery Fisher Hall this morning -- although the news actually broke late last night, and had hit blogs by midnight -- the New York Philharmonic has appointed Alan Gilbert (at center, flanked by Zarin Mehta and Paul B. Guenther) its new music director, effective as of the 2009–10 season.
A 40-year-old New York native and the son of two Philharmonic violinists, Gilbert is currently chief conductor and artistic adviser of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, and principal guest conductor of the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg. He was also the first music director in the history of the Santa Fe Opera. Gilbert has guest conducted the New York Philharmonic in nearly every season since 2001–02, to widespread admiration.
Choosing a new music director wasn't precisely a do-or-die situation for the Philharmonic, since current music director Lorin Maazel's tenure doesn't conclude until the end of the 2008–09 season. In April, the orchestra announced that it was creating a new position, principal conductor, to go alongside the music director. We actually had a sneaking suspicion that something like this might happen: An illustrious old-line maestro like Riccardo Muti or Daniel Barenboim could be appointed music director for a finite term, while the position of principal conductor could be used to groom the heir apparent -- most likely Gilbert, whose local appearances have been widely admired.
As it happened, precisely the opposite was true. In addition to the news of Gilbert's appointment came the news that Muti had accepted what amounts to principal guest conductor status. As Philharmonic president and executive director Zarin Mehta put it at this morning's press conference, this makes Muti a very happy maestro. He has a set number of engagements per season and will lead the orchestra on selected tours. And that's the end of his responsibilities. No politicking, no fund-raising, just congenial music making.
Since the news had already broken, this morning's press conference was as much a photo opportunity and a getting-to-know you session as anything. With regard to repertoire, future directions, contemporary music and the like, there was precious little to be said as yet; while negotiations have been underway for months, Gilbert's initial five-year contract was nailed down just two weeks ago.
Still, the soft-spoken Gilbert could at least allude to some general possibilities, sometimes in response to gently lobbed, leading questions from Mehta. You've put on several festivals devoted to contemporary composers in Sweden…do you think something like that might work here?
The answer, of course, was, "Why not?" Gilbert's model in Stockholm has been to engage a second orchestra in addition to his own, splitting three orchestral programs consisting of works by one to three contemporary composers. Recent festivals have been devoted to music by John Adams, Sofia Gubaidulina and Henri Dutilleux, among others. Those composers have also programmed older and newer music by other composers to surround and contextualize their own works. Chamber-music programs, lectures and films have typically been included in those events, as well.
Gilbert's previous appearances with the New York Philharmonic have been liberally spiced with progressive works. In 2004, he programmed Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces and Ives's Symphony No. 4 on the same concert. 2005 brought Dutilleux's Mystère de l'instant. In 2007, Gilbert led the U.S. premiere of Daniel Börtz's Parodos, as well as a stunning rendition of Ligeti's Violin Concerto with soloist Christian Tetzlaff. In March 2008, he is scheduled to perform Berio's Folk Songs with Audra McDonald, and to conduct the world premiere of Marc Neikrug's Quintessence: Symphony No. 2.
Pressed to mention a few contemporary composers whose work he especially appreciates, Gilbert mentioned Anders Hillborg and Magnus Lindberg, two well-known Scandinavian mavericks with growing international profiles. This led us to inquire as to the status of the third new position announced in April: composer-in-residence. Mehta stated that the search for the right candidate had to wait until the music director position had been filled, since Gilbert will be intimately involved in the selection process. For his part, Gilbert downplayed titles and positions. "We're interested in finding the right people who will enmesh themselves in the New York Philharmonic in the right way," he said. (Hmmmm…where might they find a contemporary composer who has a proven track record, is a known audience builder and has also promoted Hillborg and Lindberg? We wonder.)
Present at the press conference was Gilbert's wife, Kajsa William-Olsson, as well as his parents, Michael Gilbert and Yoko Takebe, both longtime violinists with the Philharmonic (with Michael Gilbert now retired). Also on hand were a healthy number of Philharmonic musicians, most visibly concertmaster Glenn Dicterow—a good sign, given the extent to which a music director's success is intimately tied to his or her relationship with the players.
Mehta mentioned that Gilbert's four living predecessors—Pierre Boulez, Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur and Lorin Maazel—had all been in touch to give their blessing to this new appointment. Gilbert still seemed a bit awestruck to be following in the footsteps of what he called "the most exalted conductors of the last 100 years." His sister, an occasional substitute violinist with the Philharmonic, had run down the same litany of names to him aloud, then put his name on that list, Gilbert related. "Yeah, whatever," she added.
Richard Wagner - Siegfried - Astrid Varnay, Wolfgang Windgassen, Paul Kuen, Hans Hotter, Bayreuth Festival Orchestra/Joseph Keilberth (Testament)
Prince - Planet Earth (NPG/Sony, due 7/24)
Fairground Attraction - Kawasaki: Live in Japan 02.07.89 (BMG Japan)