Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic in December. (Chris Lee, New York Philharmonic )
NEW YORK — Listening is very important to Alan Gilbert.
It is not surprising for a gifted musician to have attentive ears, but to succeed as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, you have to hear much more than just the music.
Before taking his first leadership post at the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in 2000, Gilbert made his debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and since appearing on the podium of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1998, Gilbert has clearly been listening to what been going on in Southern California.
"I look at the model for what happened in L.A. with Esa-Pekka Salonen with great interest," Gilbert says over coffee in his Lincoln Center office, adding, "I was always very comfortable when I was in L.A. as a guest conductor. I always felt, 'This is the place where what I'm doing is understood.'"
This week, the New York Philharmonic performs in Los Angeles for the first time this century — and for the first time at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The last time America's oldest symphony orchestra performed in L.A. was in 1999, at UCLA's Royce Hall under the baton of its 23rd music director, Kurt Masur.
On Wednesday, the orchestra will be led by the 45-year-old Gilbert who — like the L.A. Phil's Gustavo Dudamel — is in his third year as music director. The Disney concert will be a good representation of the Gilbert era, because it features a new piece by Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg (which just received its world premiere Thursday at the philharmonic's home, Avery Fisher Hall) as well as two established pieces by Dvo¿ák and Tchaikovsky. On Tuesday, the orchestra performs an entirely different program at Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Hall; on Thursday, it brings a mix of the two programs to Santa Barbara's Granada Theatre.
Lindberg is a composer Gilbert has championed since Day 1 of his regime. His first concert as music director began with "EXPO," another world premiere by Lindberg that marked the first time in almost half a century that the New York Philharmonic performed a new piece in an opening-night program.
Gilbert may represent change to many philharmonic listeners — many of them wealthy, conservative patrons who prefer a steady diet of the classics — but he is hardly a radical outside agent of change. He says he doesn't elevate the importance of new work over old, making the point that a Bach festival next season is as challenging for the orchestra as modern music — and to him equally exciting. "Besides," Gilbert says, "to quote Duke Ellington, 'There's only two kinds of music, good music and bad music.'"
Indeed, as he recently rehearses the rumbling, tempestuous opening bars of the Lindberg Piano Concerto No. 2 (which will be performed by Yefim Bronfman at Disney Hall), Gilbert looks less like a firebrand at the podium — with his preferred look of untucked blue polo shirt and jeans — than he does a suburban dad on a weekend presiding over a family picnic.
It's worth mentioning that the New York Philharmonic is in many ways part of Gilbert's family. Both of his parents played with the orchestra (his mother, violinist Yoko Takebe, will be performing on the tour) as did his sister Jennifer, now concertmaster with the Orchestre National de Lyon.
Gilbert is the father of three, and his rehearsal style with the musicians feels like that of an attentive but not domineering parent. Liang Wang, the band's principal oboist, describes Gilbert as having a true commitment to perfection but adds, "He likes making music with another person rather than 'I'm the maestro, and this is the way things have to be — end of story.'" The orchestra's longtime concertmaster, Glenn Dicterow, adds: "I think we've reached a certain balance now. He has trust in the orchestra, and we trust him. And I think you can hear it."
After his 2001 debut, Gilbert made numerous appearances with the orchestra and was quickly seen as one of a few candidates to succeed Lorin Maazel as music director. Even though Gilbert was "family" (Gilbert is often touted, despite living in Stockholm for many years, as "the first native New Yorker" to hold the music director position), there was a widely held desire for mega-maestro Riccardo Muti, who had recently left his post at Milan's La Scala, to take the baton.
Then in April 2007, the L.A. Phil made headlines by tapping Dudamel, a then-26-year-old wunderkind, leaving some in New York with a sense that the its philharmonic had to settle when Muti passed (to later lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) and Gilbert was named three months later. Says Dicterow, who was on the selection committee: "While it was a little surprising maybe to a few, because he was young and hadn't been around a long time as a major conductor, we said, 'Let's take this chance.'… Sometimes you have to do something that is maybe not the most popular thing to do."