By the end of Gilbert's first season, Dicterow and the committee's instincts appear to be proven correct. Any sense of "settling" was scuttled, as the well-received season ended in a big way with a semi-staged production of Ligeti's "Le Grand Macabre." Described as "legendary" by some, the three sold-out performances of the wild "anti-anti-opera" (which had never been staged in New York) seemed to prove to New Yorkers that Gilbert not only had a vision but could also implement it as well. (That "Le Grand Macabre" took place one week after Dudamel's New York debut with the L.A. Phil was met with mixed reviews didn't hurt Gilbert's stock either.)
If the Ligeti performances won over the classical world, Gilbert earned a wider fame in January when during the final movement of Mahler's 9th symphony, he suddenly halted a performance. An iPhone's marimba ringtone in the front rows kept ringing and Gilbert turned and said, "Are you finished? Fine, we'll wait." The audience cheered with approval, then gave him a standing ovation at curtain call and the story went viral.
Dicterow says people like Gilbert because "he's not afraid to challenge the audiences and go at it.... It's been a while since we've had a positive press — at least at home here — and that was a welcome change from what's been happening historically here. So things could be falling into place." Gilbert has not formally extended his initial five-year contract with the philharmonic, but a spokesman said an announcement about his contract will happen this year. (Adding to his profile, Gilbert appears this month in a new ad for Absolut Vodka.)
When asked about his vision for the orchestra's future, Gilbert speaks of civic pride, upholding tradition, and most of all identity: "You know, from observing the orchestra over a long period of time, one of the things I felt was important for a music director, not just me, but any music director was to bring a personal slant, a point of view to the equation."
Experiencing Gilbert in performances, it's clear he has a point of view, but it's also clear it involves his colleagues. Says principal cellist Carter Brey, "He likes for the musicians to get off of autopilot and try ways of playing standard repertoire that are different from what they're used to. And part of that is to be alert to the moment and to listen very intently."
The word "listen" comes up often when other people describe Gilbert, but the conductor admits that when he took the post, he wondered if his more collegiate style would work in the notoriously tough environment that is New York. "I think that we're in a time where people often look for things that are obviously identifiable as interpretation… a kind of in-your-face point of view. That can be very exciting — and if it's combined with real talent and flare can be totally legitimate and thrilling — but it's not the only way to go."
Like Salonen in Los Angeles, Gilbert has combined transparent but meticulous music-making with an intellectual if casual persona. And while there are still critics calling for him to be more daring with his choice of repertoire, Gilbert has effectively freshened up the image of a band that was considered somewhat square.
Two years ago, Alex Ross of the New Yorker wrote about the New York and L.A. philharmonics: "The two orchestras, which once stood poles apart, now seem almost interchangeable." Gilbert says he never asked his friend Esa-Pekka for advice but admits that Salonen's tenure, "was really important — for the L.A. Phil first of all — but also for the whole landscape of orchestral music, because it really showed what is possible: the kind of identity and connection with the community that it's possible to have."
With his expansion of the New York Phil into opera, new symphonic rep and new venues (his Contact! music series takes new music to different neighborhoods in Manhattan), Gilbert has put his stamp on the organization. "I'll go out on a limb here and I'll say that one of the things that I saw — during the years when I was growing up around the orchestra — lacking, was that kind of personal touch, that human dimension. It seemed a bit impersonal and a bit corporate, and it wasn't clear to me always why the orchestra did what it did, why it made the artistic choices that it made … the orchestra needs a face, it needs a human profile."
Gilbert adds, "I like to see the fingerprint of the potter on the cup, it doesn't have to be so perfect. Sometimes a decision is interesting simply because some person made it. It's that feeling of connecting: 'I love this and I think maybe other people can get excited about it too.'"