The 21st-Century Maestro

Tonight, the N.Y. Philharmonic's baton is passed to Alan Gilbert, who wants to mash up the orchestra with metal and jazz. Plus, the youngest rock stars of the conducting world. By Rachel Syme.

09.15.09 11:48 PM ET

When Alan Gilbert steps up to the podium tonight to lead the New York Philharmonic for the first time, he will have a new baton and $10 million in his pocket.

On Monday morning, the Philharmonic announced that financier Henry R. Kravis will donate that impressive sum to the symphony. This is no small chunk of change in a horrible financial year, but then, there hasn’t been so much chatter and excitement around a Philharmonic season since the dynamic days of Leonard Bernstein—and they have the new maestro to thank.

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At 42, Gilbert will be among the youngest conductors in the orchestra’s 167-year history, and he brings with him a host of new and energetic ideas for how the ensemble should be run. When Gilbert begins his tenure tonight, he will lead the group in pieces by Berlioz, Messiaen, and Magnus Lindberg, a contemporary Finnish composer whose new work, EXPO, will have its world premiere. It is this type of bold move—debuting a never-before-heard piece by a modern composer in a major Gala performance—that has trustees like Kravis so excited about Gilbert’s takeover (he replaces the 79-year-old Lorin Maazel). Kravis’ millions, in fact, are specifically designated toward the new composer-in-residence program, an initiative that Gilbert is spearheading in an effort to infuse contemporary music and underground composers into the Philharmonic’s repertoire.

In many ways, Alan Gilbert is the perfect conductor for the Obama era and embodies the same pioneering spirit; he is remarkably young, full of energy, a minority, and a native New Yorker (the first ever to take the podium). And yet, just as he breaks nearly every mold with his appointment, Gilbert also has strong ties to the symphony that make him a comforting choice for classical music stalwarts. Both of Gilbert’s parents played violin in the Philharmonic when he was growing up, and he spent a great deal of his childhood on the road and in the green room, listening to oboes tune. He will, in fact, be conducting his mother, Yoko Takebe, when he takes the stage tonight. Never before has a conductor been such a part of the Philharmonic family, aware of its very blood and fibers; and never before has a conductor been such an outsider coming into the role.

“One of the things that I really can’t stand is when I hear people say things like, ‘Oh, I can’t go. I don’t have anything to wear.’”

In person, Gilbert is elegant and commanding. As we sat down in his office to discuss his ascension, he spoke with a calm determination—not a tone you would expect for a conductor who is hastily readying for the biggest night of his professional life (and has music and scores scattered over every surface). His daughters and wife (violinist Kajsa William-Olsson) had not yet arrived in the city from Sweden, where Gilbert had been conducting the Stockholm Philharmonic since he was 32.

“I’ve been extremely happy and had a wonderful time in Sweden the last nine years,” says the conductor, who studied at Harvard and Julliard in his early career. “But it’s always been a dream to come back to New York. Though, it’s not the kind of dream that you dare to have. The Philharmonic takes on a mythical dimension for me. Sure, I toured with them as a child, but the conductor was always somebody else. And for a long time, it never really occurred to me that it was possible to find a way to become that person.”

One of Gilbert’s most exciting mantras is his desire to make classical music approachable for everyone. “There is, unfortunately, the sense in certain quarters that what we do as a classical music orchestra is difficult to understand,” he says. “And that is something that we have to work to debunk because it’s complete nonsense. What we do is of course possible to appreciate on a very high, deeply philosophical level, but it’s not the only way that it can touch people. In fact, music is music and it’s pretty straightforward. I liked what Duke Ellington said: ‘There are only two kinds—good music and bad music’”

I liked what Duke Ellington said: ‘There are only two kinds—good music and bad music’”

He goes on: “One of the things that really can’t stand, that really makes me sad, in fact, is when I hear people—and I speak to audience members and potential audience members all the time—say things like, “Oh, I can’t go. I don’t have anything to wear.” Seriously! Or, “I wouldn’t know when to clap.” I mean, these are really superficial, unfortunate impediments or perceived impediments to the appreciation of what we do.”

Gilbert says that he understands that there is a financial impediment to appreciating classical work, yet he is quick to note his desire to expand the free concert program (he had his first official performance with the orchestra this summer at a free show in Central Park). “One of the things that I see as a very important part of my job is a kind of advocacy to get the message out,” he says. “Even people who are just ordinary New Yorkers should be aware of what we do and should be proud, because it really is a representation of what is best about the city and best about the United States. It’s what’s best about what we as human beings do.”

As for Gilbert’s more controversial ideas—bringing in rock band Phish’s Trey Anastasio to perform with the Phil, for example—he is adamant that they are not gimmicks. “As something is a “gimmick' then it has the danger of misfiring. I want to make sure that what we do is always primary and is always presented with real belief. But there’s no reason why there has to be a hard and fast separation between rock music, jazz, and us. Wynton [Marsalis] is someone I admire very much and we’re definitely going to be doing projects with him. And I want to go down and play downtown in clubs where we wouldn’t ordinarily hear classical music. I want to prove to people that the boundaries just aren’t there.”

With the $10 million gift and a brand new baton (made by the timpani player in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra—they are in such high demand that they take months to get), Gilbert is now on his way to leading the Philharmonic into being a new kind of symphony, one that can respond to both the new hope and the new frustrations of the season. Gilbert’s group, if he is able to expand his vision, will be more youthful, more accessible, and more involved with the city in a vital way. And all with a sense of humor. When asked about what he plans to wear on opening night, Gilbert smirked, “My daughter, who is 5, had some plastic hair bands with little blue plastic flowers on them. I’ve been wearing those as cufflinks all summer long.”

Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.