GILBERT KAPLAN: Welcome to "Mad About Music" and our October show featuring the next Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert.
He said that as a child he was best known to the members of the New York Philharmonic as the little orchestra brat – the son of two members of the violin section who could be found playing electronic football with one of the musicians or handing out passports when the Philharmonic was on tour. Now in his early 40's – next year the brat becomes the boss – the Philharmonic's next music director succeeding Lorin Maazel.
Along the way he has conducted acclaimed performances from the podium of the leading orchestras around the world and has served as the music director of both the Stockholm Philharmonic and the Santa Fe Opera. Right now he is in rehearsals at the Met where he'll conduct the much-anticipated New York premiere of John Adams's new opera, Doctor Atomic on October 13th. Alan Gilbert, welcome to "Mad About Music."
ALAN GILBERT: A great pleasure to be here.
KAPLAN: Now, a new music director is announced for the New York Philharmonic, and that, of course, creates great expectations. Especially after the story in New York Magazine which had a subhead, "Can Alan Gilbert Save the New York Philharmonic?" Here’s what they wrote:
"It may take one the orchestra's own to launch the revolution it needs." And then you said, "I can be patient. What I can’t do is come in and set off a bomb and shake things up right away."
GILBERT: Any artistic organization needs a constant stream of new ideas and new influences all the time. And to start talking about the need for revolution, actually doesn't really tell the story the way I see it. The New York Philharmonic is obviously an incredible orchestra and it's an organization that's in very, very good shape. And for me to come in and say that I'm going to change everything, I'm going to revolutionize things and fix what's broken would be arrogant and I think, misplaced. That having been said, I'm really excited at the sense that I feel from all corners of the institution, from within, to reexamine things, to look at what an orchestra can be in general, and what the New York Philharmonic can be in particular. I think that the New York Philharmonic can continue to improve in ways that it has already been making I think admirable efforts to engage the city of New York in a very direct and human and personal way, and that's something I'm really looking forward to doing. I hope that we can create a situation in which all New Yorkers, even those who don't necessarily come to concerts, feel a kind of pride and ownership with the orchestra. I have to say, you know, the problem, if we can speak of it that way, has been that I think that people don’t realize what the Philharmonic is doing. It's not immediate enough, it's not in the fabric of the city in the way that I would like to see, and so it's a little bit cosmetic in that sense, it's not that the Philharmonic needs to rethink its mission, or change the way it goes about presenting music; it's more that I think that there has been a certain amount of justification in the criticism that the Philharmonic has been removed and corporate and not integrated in the best possible way.
KAPLAN: That sort of calls for something a little more precise about what can you do to overcome that? But I do think there is one expectation that there will be much more contemporary music, in terms of quantity, is that probably right?
GILBERT: It's hard to say. You know, the Philharmonic actually does more contemporary music than I think people give it credit for. There has been a little bit the tendency to try to hide it, I think. To present it sort of slipped in between sort of the more comfortable pieces. I call this phenomenon the "Bolero Syndrome," that if you play a supposedly gnarly, unapproachable piece of new music, it's OK, you'll bring them in as long as you play Bolero at the end of a program. And the message I think that gets across with that kind of tokenism is that something needs to be compensated for. It's a question of the way it's presented, so I don't know that it's accurate to say that there will be a lot more. There may be more attention paid to it, and more, I think, obvious support and belief in what we're doing, because I think it is important, there's nothing to be ashamed of.
KAPLAN: All right. Well then let's turn to your music list, which heads off by a living composer, and I think that one can certainly agree that this is one who will endure. He's often first on everyone's list of who will endure among the living composers, and it's John Adams.
GILBERT: John Adams, is, well, I'm happy to count him as a good friend, but I also admire him enormously as a composer, and he certainly has got a proven track record and he's, as you say, one of the most well-known, and I think one of the most likely to endure out of contemporary composers. He has written many pieces that are already in the repertoire, so to speak, and the piece we are about to hear part of is one of those pieces. Harmonielehre is one of his early pieces. I think it was really an important work for him, both personally and compositionally. There's no secret that he had had a period of writers' block, or difficulty composing before that. And something happened that suddenly released the creative juices, and I think this was a huge release, and a huge - it was an important point is his life because suddenly I think he was able to come back to composing with great enthusiasm, and from a compositional standpoint, this is a piece that really shows where he was heading after that point. It's grounded in the original kind of minimalist aesthetic that he started out with, but it's a departure as well because it's very expressive; and it's very melodic; and it's intensely human. And for me right now, since I'm deep in the middle of preparing for Doctor Atomic, the opera that's going to be premiered at the Met, I can really see where this music eventually led to, this very warm, expressive, melodic, human singing music. So you get a little of both – this rhythmic, repetitive quality that's coupled in a very, very organic way with something beautiful.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from John Adams's Harmonielehre, performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra led by Simon Rattle. The first selection of my guest on "Mad About Music", the next Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert. You know we were talking about contemporary music before, and I meant to ask you, why is it that there seems to be a law, or I should put it this way, that it's against the law for a composer to write beautiful melodies anymore? You know the kind you can hum walking out of the hall.
GILBERT: Well, come see Doctor Atomic. I think you'd take it back!
KAPLAN: Wonderful! OK. There are some great arias in that, or?
GILBERT: Absolutely. And it's true that, you know throughout history there are not that many composers who really could write an unbelievable melody. Dvorak could, Schubert could, Mozart could. But how many other than that? You can't say that Beethoven was exactly a melodist. But of course, he was an incredible composer. But, as I said, come see Doctor Atomic, because the subject matter is obviously very striking and harsh and terrifying at times, but the intensely personal moments of Robert Oppenheimer, between, especially between Robert Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty, are very, very beautiful and moving, and you know, we just did, with the orchestra a couple of days ago for the first time, Oppenheimer's aria at the end of the first act, "Not In My Heart," based on the John Donne poem. And at the first rehearsal, there were people who were crying.
KAPLAN: Can't wait, can't wait. All right. Well then there's hope.
GILBERT: Yeah, I think there's hope, and I think your question is understandable, but you shouldn't indict all contemporary music just now.
KAPLAN: All right, then let's turn to conductors particularly to you as a conductor and I know that no conductor likes to compare themselves to any other but I'd like you to try and I'll start off with a few of my own characterizations. OK? Herbert von Karajan: I would say a certain perfection of sound. Then we can take three former Philharmonic music directors, Leonard Bernstein: he would be pushing the music envelope to its emotional limits. Pierre Boulez: I'd say a certain clarity, clinical clarity and Kurt Masur was always regarded as a strict authoritarian, always pressing the orchestra. So how would you characterize your own approach?
GILBERT: It's a very difficult question to answer, certainly in a short time, because there are a lot of things that I hope to accomplish, as a musician, as a conductor. First and foremost, is the possibility to allow the music to speak in its most natural way. And in a sense, that might imply that I try to keep my hand out of the proceedings; but it doesn't work that way. You can't simply let the music play itself. It needs the support, it needs the input of – call it a performer, call it an interpreter. But somehow, the interpretation, I think, should not impose extraneous and arbitrary ideas. So it's a difficult balance so I guess what I'm saying is that I would like to bring out the inherent expressive qualities of whatever music I play, but to present it with a really developed and hopefully honest point of view.
KAPLAN: You know, of course, you're very young, certainly for a conductor, you're very young, in your early 40s. And I remember when you were appointed, Zarin Mehta said that one of the things that impressed him, and I think that impressed the orchestra, he said was that you seemed to grow every time you returned to the orchestra. And I'm wondering; how far along do you think you are in your growth cycle as a conductor?
GILBERT: I hope that I'm not very far at all. One of the things that I admire in other musicians is the capacity to grow. I think it's very sad and sadly, very common, to see musicians who don't seem to develop, we don't have to mention names for obvious reasons, but it does happen. You get to a certain point in your career and for whatever reason, either because you stop trying, or you stop thinking you have to try, or people stop telling you things that would help you grow. There must be a lot of reasons. It seems that it's difficult to continue to improve, and suffice it to say that I hope I continue to improve my whole life and I hope it's for a long time to come. Conducting an orchestra like the New York Philharmonic is in and of itself a tremendous education. The players bring so much to the table.
KAPLAN: You know, Simon Rattle, the music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, told me that Herbert von Karajan told him that you really should throw away the first one hundred performances of Beethoven's Fifth and then you're really ready to conduct it. Does that resonate properly?
GILBERT: You know, I'm sure that's true, I couldn’t say from personal experience, because I've probably done thirty performances of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony -
KAPLAN: Well, you’re not ready yet!
GILBERT: So I'm just not there yet. But I will say that I think it's possible to do a piece well the first time out with it, but it just does get better, I mean the more chances you have with the piece. I mean, you must know that. You've conducted some pieces many, many times. I dare say that it becomes better, and with great music there is always more to find in it.
KAPLAN: All right, now Valery Gergiev was on the show some time ago, and he said something rather remarkable, I thought. He started off by saying, you know, all conductors are big egos - I guess he included himself in that. And he said, but if they were really honest, they would say that only a small portion of what they do is really good – really good. So I don't know if you agree with that, but I'd be interested just in your own self-evaluation: what percentages of the performances that you've given in a year – do you come away feeling, I really hit that one just right - that was really good?
GILBERT: To be very honest and open, surprisingly few. But, you know, each of us, I think if we're really honest, is our own best critic. And one of the things that I think is important for a conductor is to present a certain solidity, a certain confidence. That's what orchestras need. If you're doubting yourself or appearing to doubt yourself, it's not that easy to follow. And I would hope that conductors, even if they seem to be utterly in control, and confident are questioning themselves all along. I certainly do that all the time. That's one of the things that really drives the way I rehearse. If I don't hear something the way I would like it to sound, I stop and I'll ask for something different. But at the same time, obviously internally in a way that no one can see, I'm asking myself, well, what can I do differently to help make it that way.
KAPLAN: All right, well let's continue on then with music. And we now turn to your second selection, which is Martinu.
GILBERT: Martinu is one of my favorite composers and it's always a pleasure to bring this Fourth Symphony to orchestras, because so often, it's the first time that they're playing it and I find that really surprising, because it's absolutely listenable, exciting, pleasant, accessible, touching music. The Fourth Symphony may be his strongest piece. He wrote it as a response to the war, I think it must have been around 1945, something like that. I don't remember the exact year. It was a response to the horrors of war, and the hope of something better and peaceful. It's an amazing sound, because it is obviously from the Czech tradition, but it has this almost jazzy feel sometimes. He always uses a piano, there's a kind of groove in the way the rhythms really swing. It's a piece that I'm really happy to bring to New York this season, and I am sure that everyone will enjoy it.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the second movement of Martinu's Fourth Symphony, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Neeme Jarvi, a musical choice of my guest today on "Mad About Music", the next Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert -- who, by the way, will be performing this very work during his first season as music director. When we return, we'll talk about the tricky relationship between music directors and orchestras.
This is Gilbert Kaplan back with my guest, the next Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert. All right, let's talk about the relationship between a music director and the orchestra, and I'm sure you’d agree that the relationship is always tricky and sometimes say gets into serious trouble. Now I've had many conductors on this show and I've asked all of them this question: what is it that the conductor does that makes the relationship become strained and sometimes turn sour? What's your take on that?
GILBERT: There are certain inherent issues at play. The relationship between the conductor and the orchestra is by definition imbalanced in a hierarchical way. The conductor traditionally has been the one who decides many things: the basic tempo, interpretive decisions. I think when there is an element of unhealthiness in the relationship, that is to say that, the conductor is not sufficiently recognizing or acknowledging, or taking in the potential contributions of the individual musicians, I think there's bound to be an accumulation of resentment and bad will. In rehearsals, it's the conductor who talks. Sometimes the orchestras talks as well, but that's another story. The conductor talks and says, I would like this, I want this, no, you're doing this, you're doing this, that's wrong, no, you're always late, and that's hard to do, and I think with these ingredients, it's not surprising that, especially after years of working together, conductors and orchestras don't necessarily get along.
KAPLAN: All right. Let's come back though to something more personal about you and conducting. You're obviously past the point where you're going to be auditioning any more, but raising the notion of audition is for me a good way to get to the question of what you really conduct well. And what you feel you're most comfortable with. So, if you had to, tomorrow, audition for an orchestra, and you had to pick one piece that best shows off what you do, what might it be?
GILBERT: Well, I've done a lot of interviews, I've never been asked anything quite in that direction, so it's a refreshing thing to have to answer. First of all, I'm glad I never have to do another audition, because there is nothing more difficult and, yeah, terrifying than auditioning. And it's, well, what I would like to do, if I had to do an audition, I would like to do like a really simple piece, I mean simple on the page, so in other words, not like a Mahler symphony, where the challenge is - or a Strauss tone poem, where the challenge is deciphering the score and contending with many, many elements, to really distill the act of conducting to, call it, it's purest form. I’d like to conduct Mozart and Haydn a lot and I would hate to say that it's my best thing, you know, I don't consider myself a specialist. But, yeah, I would feel comfortable doing that kind of music in an audition, if I had to.
KAPLAN: All right then, let’s move down this scale a little bit to something a bit richer, to Brahms, which is the next work on your list.
GILBERT: It was a lot of fun to come up with this list of pieces for you, because there is so much music that I love, and what I did is rather than try to find specific pieces that stood out, was to find different genres and different areas that perhaps reflected on various aspects of my musical life. The reason this piece came to mind, the Brahms G major Quintet, it's the last chamber music piece I played. This summer, I performed the G major Quintet on the viola; I play both violin and viola, and it's one of my great joys, that I am able to continue to exercise this part of my musical personality and this piece, you know, Brahms didn't write a bad piece of chamber music, but this particular piece and this first movement especially, is such an incredibly joyous and wonderful affirmation of life. It's one of the most fun pieces - it's also one of the most difficult pieces to play. You don't hear it that much. You know, the sextets seem to appear more; maybe it's that it's so difficult, but it's certainly one of the great pieces, it just completely opens with a burst of energy and never lets go.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the first movement of the Brahms String Quintet No. 2, performed by the Juilliard String Quartet with Walter Trampler on the viola. Music chosen by my guest today on "Mad About Music", the next Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert. Now your first concert as music director is about one year away and certainly widely anticipated. I suppose you've already decided what you'll conduct that night.
GILBERT: I have.
KAPLAN: And you're not going to tell us!
GILBERT: I'm not going to tell you, but you won't have to wait long to find out.
KAPLAN: All right, and then, beside the Philharmonic, you are now conducting at the Met. Will that continue while you are music director at the Philharmonic?
GILBERT: There are no plans at the moment. I've spoken with Peter Gelb in general terms about doing other things, and there seems to be interest on their part, but frankly, it will be difficult when I'm working as music director, even if there's interest on both sides, just from a practical standpoint, scheduling.
KAPLAN: All right. I'm sure that even though you haven't disclosed what your opening concert will be, everybody's expecting a rather wild, unexpected opening maybe, maybe it won't be so traditional, and that brings a nice transition to what we call the "wildcard," on this show, where we can talk about music other than classical music or opera, as wildly as you like. And so what did you bring us today?
GILBERT: Well, you know, I honestly don’t listen to that much music outside of my work. Very often I find that when I'm home, wanting to relax, other people might automatically turn on the radio or listen to something, I'm actually very happy not to have any music going at all. But if I do listen to music it's usually jazz. Art Tatum is one of my favorite jazz pianists. I think he's just an incredible genius, we've probably all heard the story of Horowitz saying that Art Tatum was one of the greatest pianists he ever heard. Technically, it's just astonishing. The way his fingers really devour the keyboard is unbelievable, but his harmonic ear and his sense of style is so, so – well, it's just, there's nothing like it. I love Oscar Peterson as well, but there's something that I really feel is special about Art Tatum, and for no other reason than that there's a slight classical connection, I thought that it would be fun for everybody to hear his version of Dvorak's "Humoresque".
KAPLAN: Dvorak's "Humoresque" in an improvisation by legendary jazz pianist, Art Tatum – the "wildcard" selection of my guest today on "Mad About Music", the next Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert. You know, we've talked quite a bit about the expectations of your becoming the next music director so I'd like to continue with that in a slightly different vein and talk about: the critics. Now, the New York critics constantly bombarded the Philharmonic to select a young American conductor and of course they were thrilled with that decision. But do you think that will influence the way they'll review your own concerts, at least at the beginning?
GILBERT: Well, I doubt it. You know, I have to hope that a critic, any critic that comes to a concert will really listen to the concert, and give an honest appraisal of what they think happened that particular night. Undoubtedly, some critics will have agendas that they want to push, and if they want to emphasize the fact that the right decision was made, I dare say that would work in my favor. But that's not really how it works. And, you know, reviews are such a funny thing because they are at the end of the day, one person's opinion. But -
KAPLAN: In New York though, one person's opinion is often the only opinion …
GILBERT: ...that is disseminated widely. And that's absolutely true. For a long time I was very proud and I was very stubborn about the fact that I didn't read reviews and I really didn't. I started to read reviews in Stockholm, and the reason I did is that I wanted to know what the public in Stockholm, what they were hearing, what was informing their perception of what was going on in the concert house in Stockholm.
KAPLAN: Well, speaking of Sweden, I see that your next selection is a Swedish composer, one I certainly like, and I suppose you would regard him maybe as unfairly neglected out of Sweden, because he's not played very much elsewhere and that's Wilhelm Stenhammar.
GILBERT: Stenhammar was a great composer and a virtuoso pianist in the grand virtuoso tradition of the 19th century. His two piano concertos are a little bit dated, but his Serenade for Orchestra is a gem. It is wonderfully written for the orchestra, light, bubbling, gorgeous, and the way I think of it is, it's kind of a mix of Strauss, especially early Richard Strauss, the early Strauss operas, and Sibelius. You get these wonderful, pointy textures combined with these long vistas, these long Scandinavian landscapes. I did this piece in my very first program in New York, the first time I ever conducted the New York Philharmonic, and it was the first time they played it, and I've done it many places, and it's, except in Sweden, where its standard repertoire, people play it every year. It is unknown and invariably, people say, "Wow, this is one of those new pieces or pieces that we didn't know that really deserves to be played. It's really great." Because, so often, as we've discussed in the past, if you don’t know a piece there's perhaps a reason why it hasn't hit the mainstream. This one really deserves to be there.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the overture of Wilhelm Stenhammar's Serenade, one of the best known works by a Swedish composer, here performed by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra with Neeme Jarvi on the podium. A selection of my guest on "Mad About Music", the next Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert. When we return we'll discuss who Alan Gilbert's ultimate favorite composer is.
This is Gilbert Kaplan back with my guest today on "Mad About Music", the next Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert. You know, as we're heading toward the end of the show, and I see your final selection is Mozart, I want to talk to you about another composer and that's Haydn because I read that when you were asked to pick one composer – the only one you would take to a desert island, you said Haydn. Why would he be the one you could live with the most, under those circumstances and should I say, have trouble living without?
GILBERT: Haydn, for me, never gets old. There's something so optimistic and natural and playful about his music. I think as a symphonist, he is at the very top. I think perhaps even greater than Mozart, and that's high praise indeed. It's inventive in a way that I think makes it endlessly fascinating. And the variety that he came up with in his you know 104 plus symphonies is really incredible. Every one is a world unto itself and yeah, it's just, I think, some of the greatest music there is.
KAPLAN: All right, well with that in mind let’s move on to number two then, which is Mozart, and which is your final selection.
GILBERT: I needed a fifth classical selection and I just chose the first piece that came to mind, I thought, OK, what's one of my favorite things of all, and it's the slow movements of the piano concertos of Mozart, and especially this one. One of the things I love about Mozart is the fact that, I feel that he encompasses such an incredible range of feelings, all at the same time. It's as if his saddest music is at the same time the most ecstatic. And his happiest music very often has a tinge of sadness as if there is something surreal and human about it, because life is never quite so simple as just yes or no, or up or down. And in this saddish movement, there's always a hope, and I think that's why Mozart was such a great opera composer. Because he was able, in his music, to reveal whatever emotion, or feeling or characterization that he wanted to, because he was always so close to every aspect of what humans feel. Anyway, the second movement of the "Jeunehomme" is certainly a great example of that.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from the second movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9, the English Chamber Orchestra with Daniel Barenboim both as soloist and conductor. The final selection of my guest today on "Mad About Music", the next music director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert. All right, before we conclude the show, we come to what I call "Fantasyland," where all guests, and that means you too, have to reveal a musical fantasy. So, if you could be a star of a different kind than you are, would it be as a singer, songwriter, percussionist, opera director, what would it be?
GILBERT: Well, a lot of those things sound fascinating, but I'll tell you this. I used to play drums. I played set in my high school jazz band. And when I was in high school, going to all my friends' bar mitzvahs, I would often sit in with the band, because my friends knew that I played set and they said "Oh, Alan can play" you know and they would let me join in for a song or two. I haven't done that for years, and I was at a party recently, my wife's brother got married, and the band director said, "Hey, do you want to sit in?" And I said, no. But that's the closest I've been in the last thirty years, to actually saying yes. So, I'm thinking about it.
KAPLAN: All right, Alan Gilbert, you've been a most interesting guest, giving us a glimpse of what makes you tick as a conductor and your hopes as you become the next music director of the New York Philharmonic. Thank you for appearing on this show. We wish you great success in this new adventure. This is Gilbert Kaplan for "Mad About Music."
"Mad About Music"
Gilbert Kaplan, Executive Producer
Heidi Bryson, Producer
Marcela Silva, Associate Producer
Leszek Wojcik, Recording Engineer