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Alan Gilbert has been musical director of the New York Philharmonic since September 2009. He was previously chief conductor and musical adviser to the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, and has[…]

A conversation with the music director of the New York Philharmonic.

Alan Gibert: I'm Alan Gilbert. I'm music director for the New York Philharmonic.

What qualities separate a great conductor from a mediocre conductor?

Alan Gilbert: It's kind of... it's like the duck:  you know it when you see it.  It's hard to describe a duck, but when you see a duck you know it's a duck because that's what a duck is.  A great conductor is someone who can work with musicians and stand in front of them and bring out the best in them and create a musical experience that communicates to the audience.  And it's hard to say what it is because there are conductors who are very clear and show the tempo in a very precise way and help the musicians play absolutely together, but something is missing.  The soul is not there; the spirit is not there.

And then there will be musicians or conductors who have no obvious technique and seem scrappy and all over the place, but something happens.  So what it means to conduct, actually, is sort of the basic question.  The idea of showing the tempo to help musicians play together is basic, but it's so much more than that.  It's about inspiring them and making the musicians feel that there's something in the music that they want to express.  And it’s, I would say it's very hard to put your finger on what exactly conducting is.  A conductor is the person who stands in front of the group and moves his or her arms.  But how to get the musicians to be able to play their best, but also even more importantly to want to play their best and communicate something to the audience. That's all part of the equation.

How critical are you when you attend a performance where someone else is conducting?

Alan Gilbert:  Well, it's hard to shut off the critical faculty because what we try to do as musicians is create the best possible musical line, and it involves many, many choices that hopefully don't sound like choices at the end of the day.  But when I listen to a piece that I know very well, it's impossible for me to avoid comparing it to how I feel about the piece.  Sometimes, in the most fortunate circumstances, listening to a concert I am able to forget about what I think about how I would do the piece and just join the party, as it were, and just allow the music to unfold.  That generally means that I think "Wow."  At the end of the concert I can think, "That was totally convincing.  That was a beautiful performance, and that really made sense.  And the depth of feeling, the depth of meaning and the music really came to life."

There’s so many layers on which to appreciate a performance.  There's the way the interpretation goes, as we were talking about.  But there's also how it's played, how much belief the performers have, how much technical skill they are able to bring to it, if there are mistakes, if there are things that don't go perfectly together, I mean, things like that can happen.  When I listen to the New York Philharmonic, whether I'm conducting or just listening in the audience, I can marvel at the amazing technical level and the ability of the players to operate their instruments.  That's a very exciting level in and of itself.  There are certain pieces that are fun for that reason, almost primarily.  You can just admire the way it's played.

I have to say it's sometimes hard for me to hear concerts because a lot of the music I hear I tend to have done myself, or know, and I try to leave my preconceptions and my prejudices at the door, but it's not always possible.

How much do you feel you need to stay true to the original intentions of the composer?

Alan Gilbert:  I think interpretation is a fascinating area, and I'm not even quite sure what interpretation is.  I've thought a lot about what it means to interpret music and to interpret anything, for that matter... literature or art, visual arts, paintings...  I think it's absolutely essential to stay true to the intentions of the composer, but what that means is very complicated and very nuanced because there's no composer, I think, who's worth his or her salt who would want his piece played without personal involvement from the performer.  The piece, after all, doesn't come to life until it is played or interpreted, if you will.

And what I try to do is make the music as honest as possible and as natural as possible.  That doesn't mean I keep myself out of the proceedings.  That would be impossible.  Some music requires absolute commitment and a complete force of personality or it's not being true to the composer.  So how you decide how a piece goes has to be based on your personal response but motivated by what is offered to you on the page.  There is the possibility with living composers to ask them what they actually wanted when they wrote something down, but at the risk of being provocative or sounding as if I don't care what they think, I don't necessarily believe that composers are the best... that they know best how a piece should be performed.

I actually am very interested in what is written down on the page because that is a necessarily limited language—the notations, the black and white scrawls that you see on the page.  When a composer decides to write a tempo marking or a metronome marking, how fast they feel the piece should go, it's almost impossible to realize that exactly; it’s a suggestion, but it's a suggestion you should take seriously.  There are times when I will consciously ignore – well, ignore is not the word – but I won't do exactly the metronome marking for various reasons:  because the acoustics in the particular hall I might be playing in is such that – For example, a fast tempo – if we do the actual tempo marking that the composer writes down, it would sound mushy because there's too much reverberation in the hall.  Or the players themselves – maybe you can get more beautiful playing that I think somehow would be more true to the intentions of the composer by altering something or asking for more sound or less sound.

Notation, as I said, is necessarily limited, and I think that's the beauty of interpretation; it’s that you have to take the notation and make it your own.  When I study a piece I try to work with it until I get to the point where if I open the score to any page, I get an immediate and visceral response that this is how the music goes.  That means that I've made choices, but finally in a strange way my personality has nothing to do with it.  Of course, in the actual performance, you have to be engaged, you have to be involved, you have to be able to commit yourself to something.  You have to be able to go for something.

But I think that there's the mistaken idea; people talk about, “Oh, I like the interpretation.”  I think often when people talk about interpretation in that way, what they're looking for is a quirky decision, something that has obviously been worked out.  For me, as soon as I'm aware of a decision having been made in a performance, there's something intrinsically wrong already; the premise is wrong.  I think that the most interesting, and the most real, and the most profound interpretations don't sound like interpretations, necessarily.  They just sound right.

Describe how you were feeling and what you were thinking about during this performance.

Alan Gilbert:  Yeah, well this was a special concert for me obviously because it was the first one as a music director, and it was live on television, and the way the rehearsal schedule went we didn't have that much time to prepare it, so we were not as played into the program as I would ideally want to be.  I'm not making excuses.  I'm just saying that this was the situation.  So when I went out on stage I was in a way trying to skip a step.  I love the experience of playing a piece over and over on tour because it does improve.  It develops, it matures, and we had a wonderful experience doing that in January and February.  I did a tour with the orchestra.  This was several months after the opening, and one of the pieces we played was the Second Symphony of Sibelias.  I like to keep working, and I like to keep refining and perfecting things, and when we finally came back to New York and played it in Carnegie Hall, it really was possible to give a performance that was based on comfort and experience.

This one we hadn't played, and I tried in my mind to kind of play a mental trick and just pretend that all that development had happened, and sometimes that actually works very well, and with an orchestra like the New York Philharmonic that can really deliver in the moment and be poised, it can work. 

For me emotionally, I was also trying to stay calm.  I don't really get nervous for concerts.  Some people find that interesting to hear.  They think, "Oh, do you get nervous in concerts?"  I don't so much get nervous, and even in this concert, which was highly scrutinized and important‚—being the first one and all—I wasn't so nervous, but I was at the same time trying to make sure that I was calm, and I wasn't taking tempos too fast.  Sometimes when you're not aware of it, if you're keyed up, and if the stakes are high, tempos tend to come out faster.  I was trying to really just settle down and make as expressive a case for the music as I can.  And the Berlioz is a great piece as far as that goes.  It's a great piece by any measure, but it's so colorful, and it has a kind of combination, I think.  You know, some people have called Berlioz the kind of "most German" of the French composers, and I find that actually interesting and rather telling because he has the kind of impressionistic, pastel, refined quality of sound in his music.  And I think you hear that right at the beginning, and that's one of the excerpts that we've just looked at.

It starts out with this amazing lightness and delicacy.  You can imagine a kind of Monet painting where the colors kind of bleed into each other, and it's very veiled and lovely.  And then there are moments in the piece where there has to be an incredible precision and a rhythmic drive.  There are very few composers who I think really encompass this incredible range of both rhythmic precision with tonal fantasy.  As a conductor you try to show the time as clearly as possible, but there are moments in this piece where it doesn't work simply to be precise.  You have to embody the evanescence of the sound, the kind of lightness of texture.

It's very interesting how just the simple quality of your body; if you hold your hands like this, or if you relax them, it effects the sound instantly.  The players read that, and they sympathetically create that kind of sound.  I find it very difficult.  I think all conductors find it very difficult to have the right kind of connection and horizontal lightness in sound while at the same time determining points along the way that are the temp.  That's to me the challenge of Berlioz, and really what I was trying to accomplish is to have both sides of his music.

How do you mentally prepare for a concert?

Alan Gilbert:  I restudy every piece that I conduct, at least a little bit, before I go on stage.  Even pieces that I know very well that I've done many, many times, I flip through the score, and I make sure that my mind is there.  It's the phenomenon of coming to it a second time.  If something feels like it's the first time, even it it's not really, it's hard to really get into it, and there's a comfort I feel from actually just taking the time before a performance to remind myself how it goes.  As I said, I don't really get nervous.  It's not, there's no kind of wacky routine that I have to do in order to put myself in the right frame of mind.  I'm happy to speak to people backstage.  I'm happy to chat about whatever else is going on, you know, the US Open, golf, whatever it is that we're thinking about.  I just make sure that at the very least I have a few minutes where I can sort of go into the zone and really be able to concentrate.

I think concentration is one of the most important abilities.  To be able to concentrate well is one of the most important things that a conductor can have.  To really be able to focus on whatever it is at that moment, both in terms of the performance, but also taking care of all the various things that go along with the job because being a music director is, of course, mainly about conducting and delivering good performances.  But there's so many other questions that cross the desk in terms of personnel, and planning, and programming.  If I have to think about everything at once, nothing really gets done that well, so whatever it is I try to do it and not worry about the other things because I hopefully realize that when – if I've taken care of one thing well, then I can let it go and move on to the next thing.  I try not to multitask, actually.

Question: Do you ever lose focus when you're conducting?

Alan Gilbert:  I'm pretty good at keeping my concentration on stage.  Today in the performance there was a moment where I almost lost focus, and it was; I don't know if it was my fault or not, but anyway I turned two pages in the Gruber trumpet concerto.  It's a very, very complicated piece, and it was actually the most complicated section, the most dangerous section to lose your place.  If I had messed up, I probably wouldn't have been able to get back on, so it was a really scary moment.  I wasn't really thinking as I turned the page – and in this particular piece it's very important to turn the pages really well at the right time and of course only one leaf at a time.  I usually am able to stay really in the moment in the performance.  If I'm tired, that's when I tend to lose my concentration.  I sometimes think, well my kids are very important to me;  I think about them a lot, and I'll go through an entire concert, and I'll think, “Oh, I didn't think about my kids once during these last two hours.

What could someone in another field learn about focus from your experience as a conductor?

Alan Gilbert:  I think being well prepared helps you focus.  I think... I like to go into a rehearsal or a concert knowing that I know how it's going to go.  Not that I know exactly how it will play out or how it will feel musically or artistically, but I don't allow myself to enter a situation without doing adequate preparation.  That means focusing beforehand but also creating the situation in which it's possible to be 100 percent focused in the moment. 

My wife laughs when I say this because I work hard and I keep a difficult schedule.  I say that I'm fundamentally lazy, and the only thing that's stronger than my natural laziness is this absolutely pathological need to be 100 percent prepared.  So in a way, it doesn't quite make sense, but I really... it's just one thing that I just never would allow myself to do is to show up being less than prepared.  That's the one thing you can control.  You can't control what happens externally, but you can control your level of preparation. That gives you confidence, and that makes it possible to, I think, really give the best when the pressure is on.

How important is the chemistry between an orchestra and its conductor?

Alan Gilbert: I think it's a unique relationship because the conductor is an essential part of the equation.  The orchestra is obviously an essential part of the equation.  The medium is sound, and the conductor doesn't make sound, so already that's strange because the conductor is clearly an important factor in the way a performance goes, but the conductor doesn't actually make the sound.  The musicians, the players on the stage, make the sound.

So, motivator is part of it, but there is definitely a craft to conducting, so the ability to show things in a way that the orchestra can respond in a good way... there is a technique involved.  It's not just that the conductor is only motivating the... the conductor is definitely in the performance.  I don't know that there's another dynamic that I can think of that is quite comparable.  A lot of managers are interested in what conductors do.  There's actually a little cottage industry of conductors who do consulting and go speak to businesses to show what the model is because people seem to find it very interesting, the dynamic between the conductor and the orchestra.  The conductor both leads but also what I try to do, anyway, is to lead in a way that takes into account what I'm being offered at the same time, so there's definite traffic both ways.  I try to lead in a way that is taking into account the result of what I'm provoking, so there's a lot happening all at the same time.  I think that can be a good lesson for managers to really... to expect something from the orchestra but then to use that expectation to create what you're asking for at the same time.  It's kind of a constant circle of... a transfer of energy.

Is it hard to make a unified sound with so many disparate musicians?

Alan Gilbert:  I think it is hard, and that's after all what I think is my main job is to try to bring everybody together and to get them to cooperate and to have a way with a particular piece or a particular composer.  That's one of the things I'm most pleased with, actually – the way things are going.  I feel that there's a really defined and clear stylistic difference, depending on which piece the orchestra's playing, which composer the orchestra's playing.  What I try to do is in the rehearsals really go for a certain kind of sound.  I think the sound itself is the most interesting thing that we deal with as musicians, and I'm trying to help the orchestra, which is of course great already and is amazing at playing lots of different music.  I'm trying to make it more specific so that for example, when we play Mozart there's a certain type of sound that we go for on the strings.  It might be a lighter bow stroke or a faster bow stroke.  I mean, the technical things are not important or interesting, but they're ways to adjust the sound, and I think that it is important to have a distinct sound for Mozart or even a particular piece of Mozart.

What are you listening for when you're conducting?

Alan Gilbert:  Well, both.  I mean, I try to hear everything that's happening, and that can be very, very difficult, and someone that tells you, “Oh, I hear everything that's happening onstage” is lying because there's almost no way, I think, to really do that.  But as an exercise, I do try to identify, okay, What is that musician, the third flute, playing?  And I try to make sure I can hear that.  You have to hear what's going on because if you're... there's a way... I've used the analogy...  It's like a ball, a very big ball.  You can affect the way the ball rolls, and you can change the direction that the ball is rolling if it's already in motion, but you can't suddenly have it turn an abrupt angle.  There's a natural way that the ball can be guided, so even though you're steering the ball there's a natural momentum the ball has that you can't interfere with. 

If the orchestra has a certain flow, you can affect the flow, but there's a natural way to do that, and there's a way that actually would interrupt the natural flow.  So it's not that you can just do whatever you want.  You have to take into account what is happening and what is being offered from the players.  So that means really being in touch with they're doing and hearing them as well as you can.  It's surprisingly difficult to really identify, not even with two, or three, or four lines, but even just one line, to really hear what the will and the sense that the players are giving to one line, to really listen to that and to actually be able to react to it in a meaningful way is surprisingly difficult.

When you hear an instrument that is out of sync, how do you steer it back without throwing everyone else?

Alan Gilbert: Well, that's difficult, and what happens is if there's more than one current, if there are conflicting currents onstage, then you have to make a choice.  You have to either give in or insist.  For the other musicians onstage, if they sense two currents, if they say... for example, if I show one thing and they hear a response to that that is not in sync, then they have a dilemma; they have to choose, “Do I go with what I see from the conductor or do I go with what I hear?”

So I very often tell orchestras, even the New York Philharmonic,  say, “You know, I really want you to play with my lead.  It's not that I care about your following me that precisely, it's just that I want to take the element of choice out of the question” so that people are not forced to decide Do I follow him or do I not follow him?  There has to be just one current.  Of course, mistakes happen.  Accidents happen.  If something goes wrong, then you just have to use your sense and that's based on experience.  Either you give in - sometimes it's better to give in and allow it to sort of right itself over time.  Other times you sort of dig your heels in and say “No.  This is where it is.”  And it creates a discomfort and uncomfortable moment, but you try to use your best sense, and I couldn't say it's always one way or it's always another way.  You just have to figure out what's the best way to get out of those situations, and hopefully they're not too frequent.

How much do you think your personality comes out in the way you conduct?

Alan Gilbert:  I hope it comes out intensely.  That's not to say that it’s about me, that.. I think that conducting is obviously a visual activity because it's about showing things with your gesture to the musicians.  But I don't want the audience to feel that they have to see a show from me in order to feel how exciting the music is.  But on the other hand, if the music is exciting and if I look unengaged and not in it, then that would certainly prevent the experience from being what it really should be.  It's a fine line that you sort of have to walk to really infuse the performance and the music with your deeply committed personality while allowing the music to still be paramount.  It's a tricky thing, and it's what we're all going for.

Do your facial expressions affect the way people play?

Alan Gilbert:  Absolutely.  I mean, you have to allow your face to show the character of the music, but that's not something that I plan.  You don't say, “Well, I want them to think I'm happy, so I'll smile now.”  You naturally allow yourself to feel the music and then just as you.. when you're hanging out, sometimes your face looks more serious, sometimes it looks more animated, sometimes it looks more pensive.  That's definitely part of the communication.

When you start as a conductor of a new orchestra, how long does it take them to understand your facial expressions?

Alan Gilbert:  It happens right away, actually, or hopefully it does.  If it doesn't, then there's probably something wrong.  It's interesting.  You can really understand the difference an orchestra feels in conductors if you go to a conducting class where there may be six or ten or twelve conductors in a very short span of time.  Often it happens that these conductors will be doing the same music, so you have a really good basis of comparison.

The sound is literally different within one second of—or instantly—once a new conductor comes on.  They'll conduct the same music that had just been done by another conductor, but the orchestra sounds completely different.  It's uncanny.  There's something in the body language that immediately translates into sound, and that's one of the exciting and kind of amazing things about conducting.

Explain some of the basic motions that you use to indicate how people should play.

Alan Gilbert: The basic premise of conducting is that you have to give a beat before the sound.  So if I want a sound to happen... say if we're counting one, two, three, four, boom... and something happens on the next "one," so if we're counting in four: one, two, three, four, one, two, three... If something happens on the next 'one,' then I would have to make a motion starting on "four."  So I'll count... I go one, two, three, four, one.  So I start at the gesture before.  Anything that happens, you have to indicate it, you have to start indicating it a beat before.  That's the basic premise.  There are more subtleties that can come into play, but essentially you show things a beat before they happen.  So if something happens on 'three' – one, two, three, four, one, two, three.  I alter my gesture on 'two' in order to show that something is gonna happen on the next 'three' or on 'four' I go one, two, three, four—I just give a little bit extra impetus on "four."

Then, the next level is the quality of sound.  If you want it to be a sharp decisive sound, then you give a more sharply defined, more decisive gesture.  So one, two, three, four, one – you give more impetus.  Or if you want a softer sound one, two, three, four, one -you can give a more gentle sound.  Or if you want to show that... you can use the left hand to show that you want more.  There's the time that's going on, but within the gesture, you can alter also the quality of sound.  If the arm is very, very... if you fill it with intensity, the sound will tend to be more active and more rich.  And if you allow the arm to be lighter and weightless, that is also reflected in the sound.

So those are the basic things... just showing the time.  Events have to be shown one beat before.  Then the quality of sound on those events can be affected by the speed of the gesture, the intensity of the gesture, and also the texture, if you will, of the body itself.

Your mother is a violinist in the New York Philharmonic. What is it like to conduct her?

Alan Gilbert: My mother is a violinist, a wonderful violinist, still playing in the New York Philharmonic.  I was more aware of it... I mean, it's not that I forget about it; I’ll never be able to do that.  It's a very unique situation—a kind of fantastic, wonderful situation.  Early in the time I was conducting the orchestra, the first times with the orchestra, I certainly was more aware of the fact that my mother was sitting over to my left.  Now, frankly, there's so much to think about, there's so much to worry about, there are so many elements that I have to keep in my mind that I would say that her presence has assumed it's sort of proper proportion now.  Of course, I'm aware she's there.  I'm happy she's there.  I'm lucky that she's playing really, really well, and there are no issues as far as that goes because I guess technically I'm her boss, and if there were any sort of issues I'd be the one who would have to deal with it.  She's at the top of her game, and that keeps it simple.

Does she still give you advice?

Alan Gilbert:  Absolutely.  She's me mother, after all.  She will often... I mean, sometimes it's silly advice, like “Oh, I didn't like those clothes you wore, or whatever.”  But she says, “Here it felt a little bit pushed” or “It feels like we could use a little bit more time on this.”  This is really interesting feedback to get, and because of the hierarchy and because of the nature of the situation, conductors tend not to get a lot of feedback from the orchestra, which is probably good because it could become really messy if everybody in the orchestra felt that it was okay to give his or her advice.  And, you know, there's some boundaries that are probably worth preserving.

It's also very useful because the musicians are smart and they have a lot of perspective and experience.  Good advice is always welcome, and it happens that my mother feels comfortable saying things.  She basically leaves me to my work, but occasionally she will definitely say, “Oh, this was a little fast,” or “We need a little more help with the beat at this point.”  It's useful.

Recorded on June 18, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman