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Alan Gilbert Leads Juilliard Orchestra with 'Humanity' and 'Testosterone'

Alan Gilbert conducts the Juilliard Orchestra

"It is a testimony to the conductor Alan Gilbert’s commitment to education that while busy with his work as music director of the New York Philharmonic he is also the director of conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School," wrote The New York Times' Anthony Tommasini October 18, in a listing item for the performance by Gilbert and the Juilliard Orchestra at Carnegie Hall October 21.

Reviewing the concert for the Times, Corinna da Fonseca Wollheim wrote, "Mr. Gilbert, who conducted the hourlong symphony from memory, shaped a performance that combined deep humanity, especially in the Adagio, with high charges of testosterone in the Scherzo and Finale." She added:

There are experts — I’m not one of them — who can identify an orchestra by its sound. During Monday evening’s concert of the Juilliard Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, I found myself wondering what these people would have heard if they had sat blindfolded through this program of works by Bartok and Bruckner, conducted by Alan Gilbert. As powerful waves of rich brass chords rolled out during the last movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, would they have guessed that the players are students, most in their early 20s? When the sound of the violins intensified with the heat and gleam of molten metal, could they have known that the section was almost entirely made up of women?

In any case, such a blind test would have deprived the listener of the visual pleasure of watching this polished and passionate ensemble dig into Bruckner’s music with a palpable thirst for adventure.

(Photo by Peter Schaaf)

Alan Gilbert: 'Energetic, Animated and Enthusiastic'

Alan Gilbert 

Today's Wall Street Journal has an interview with Music Director Alan Gilbert by Ralph Gardner Jr., who sought Gilbert's expert opinions about Beethoven's Ninth and what makes some art and artists truly great. Here is an excerpt:

The maestro is such an energetic, animated and enthusiastic presence that once he got going, it was simply a pleasure to sit back, listen and learn. ...

“[One] thing we’ve been talking about backstage is the comfort [Beethoven's Ninth] can bring in chaotic times,” Mr. Gilbert said, mentioning the New York City Opera filing for bankruptcy and the federal government’s shutdown. “The Ninth is a stabilizing presence. There’s been a very strong sense of community in the room. It’s been very moving. Orchestra members tell me how many members of the audience end up in tears by the last movement.” ...

“What Beethoven was trying to do was so different than anything that had gone before it,” Mr. Gilbert explained. “I’d argue anything that followed since. He was trying to say something universal about humanity. In fact, there is an ambition to express something that hadn’t been expressed in symphonic music before.

“What Beethoven did was set the bar,” he added. The composer is the reason “that Mahler in his symphonies tried to say everything there is to say about life. Brahms couldn’t write symphonies for a long time because of the footsteps he heard behind him. This was literally history-changing music.” ...

“I’ve done the Ninth a number of times,” he went on. “I got a new score. It didn’t have any of my previous markings to trigger associations or thoughts. I don’t know if I changed, but I found a new relationship with the piece this time around.” ...

Mr. Gilbert, 46 years old, grew up in Manhattan. He attended the Fieldston School before heading to Harvard. In high school, he briefly considered becoming a doctor: “A friend who was a surgeon let me observe operations at Roosevelt Hospital.”

“I kept circling back to music,” he added. “It wasn’t really a choice. It chose me.”

His parents also might have had something to do with it. His mother, Yoko Takebe, is a violinist with the Philharmonic. His father, Michael Gilbert, also a violinist, retired from the orchestra in 2001. I wondered what it’s like to occupy a stage with one’s mother, and whether she critiques his performances.

“It’s more like we share in the experience,” he explained. “She’s playing well. It’s going well for me. We’re both able to have a good time.”

 (Photo: Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal)

Alan Gilbert on Multimedia Concerts: 'This Is Our Identity'

Alan Gilbert and Doug Fitch 

Music Director Alan Gilbert was recently featured in a Washington Post article by Anne Midgette on multimedia performances by orchestras. As Midgette notes, interdisciplinary performances through collaboration with other institutions and artists are one way in which Gilbert has brought a fresh approach to music-making. (Above, Gilbert works on one such project with director-designer Doug Fitch.) She writes:

In 2008, I reviewed a U-Md. concert called “The Petrushka Project.” [James] Ross and the director/puppeteer Doug Fitch, who are old friends, teamed up to create a performance of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” that had the orchestra musicians wearing bits of costume, stomping their feet, drinking tea, and performing other stage business. It seemed a worthy one-off experiment.

Description: Description: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/images/pixel.gifBut lo and behold, the “Petrushka Project” has come to the New York Philharmonic. Paired with another Stravinsky work, it closed the orchestra’s 2012-13 season and was filmed for distribution in movie theaters this month under the title “A Dancer’s Dream.” Alan Gilbert, the Philharmonic’s music director, is planning to take it on tour.

“I couldn’t have imagined this five years ago, when I was asked to be the orchestra’s music director,” Gilbert said by phone last week.

In his four years at the Philharmonic to date, Gilbert has been an active champion of alternative forms of concert performance. In addition to its traditional diet of symphonies and concertos, the orchestra has offered semi-staged opera productions (directed by Fitch), theatrical presentations of contemporary music, and, yes, film-score accompaniment. “After four years,” Gilbert said, “it’s possible to say it’s not just an aberration. . . . This is our identity, not something we’re pasting on.”

Gilbert’s motivation is not to reach new audiences or find ways to make music more approachable. “I don’t buy that you need to juice up the concert experience with visuals to continue to be relevant,” he said. “I think sitting in a hall where music is being created live, in front of your face, is one of the most meaningful experiences you can have, still. That said . . . orchestras as institutions have to be more than just concert-producing mechanisms.” He added, “I am very interested in showing connections between what we do and what other cultural institutions and forces do.”

'Vibrant, Lucid and Intriguing'

Alan Gilbert 

"As music director of the New York Philharmonic, the conductor Alan Gilbert has probably drawn the highest praise for his compelling advocacy of new, recent and overlooked repertory. But he is now making a significant artistic statement by leading a performance of a towering repertory work, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony," The New York Times' Anthony Tommasini wrote.

Here's Tommasini's review of that statement:

"For the New York Philharmonic’s concert at Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday night, the conductor Alan Gilbert took the idea of pairing a new work with a Beethoven symphony, which has become fairly common, to another dimension. The main work was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Mr. Gilbert’s first performance of that piece with the Philharmonic. He led a vibrant, lucid and intriguing account that culminated with a fleet, exciting finale. ...

True to form, this insightful musician reveals the inner workings and wondrous complexities of the piece. In the first movement, I have seldom heard the bursts of counterpoint played with such transparency and rhythmic point. ...

His tempo for the scherzo was reined in just enough to make the jarring rhythmic accents leap out and the matrix of interwoven lines come through. The slow movement, which unfolded at a lapping Adagio pace, had lyrical elegance and rich string sound."

The Beethoven followed the U.S. Premiere of Frieze, by the British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage. “Frieze is an audacious and vividly orchestrated piece from a major composer," Tommasini wrote. "Mr. Gilbert drew a kaleidoscopic performance from the Philharmonic."

 

'Mr. Gilbert Could Not Stop Dancing'

Alan Gilbert 

Critical acclaim confirms what everyone around here has seen, heard, and felt this past week: Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic are off to a bright start to the season.

Of last Thursday's concert, The New York Times' Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim wrote:

"There were many moments during this first subscription concert, in which Alan Gilbert conducted works by Ravel, Bernstein and Tchaikovsky, when the musicians seemed to be having far too much fun to justify the word 'work.' For starters, Mr. Gilbert could not stop dancing. His conducting is always physically animated, but in Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso and Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances From West Side Story, the Latin rhythms took shape in expressive body movements that ranged from a quick forward snap of the shoulder and a slight twitch of the hips to the theatrical flamenco arm gesture with which he brought the Alborada to a close."

Tickets are still available for tonight's performance of that program.

Reviewing the Opening Gala, which took place last Wednesday, Sedgwick Clark wrote, in Musical America, that Mr. Gilbert and the Orchestra delivered "a smashing performance. ... The Philharmonic is in great shape these days." In New York Classical Review, Eric C. Simpson, describing Boléro, wrote that "Gilbert certainly deserves credit for drawing disciplined playing and vibrant tone out of his orchestra." 

Noting the standing ovation the audience gave the Philharmonic and Yo-Yo Ma's performance Osvaldo Golijov's Azul, Simpson wrote, "New York audiences have a reputation for stodginess, but Gilbert has demonstrated repeatedly that compelling performances of admirable new music can be invigorating for both performers and listeners."

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