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A Friday Surprise: Alan Gilbert Will Leave The New York Philharmonic

Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic, has announced he will step down in 2017.
Chris Lee
New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic, has announced he will step down in 2017.

The New York Philharmonic sprang an enormous surprise this morning: Its music director, Alan Gilbert, announced that he will be leaving the orchestra in the summer of 2017. Gilbert will have spent eight years as the artistic head of the ensemble by the time of his departure, and during his time there he broke all kinds of new ground. Not only was he the first native New Yorker and first Asian-American to serve as its artistic director, but he literally grew up with the Phil — both his parents were Philharmonic violinists for many years.

More than that, the 47-year-old Gilbert reinvigorated the New York Philharmonic. Under previous artistic chiefs, including Lorin Maazel, Kurt Masur and Zubin Mehta, the orchestra's repertoire was largely conservative and inward-looking. Since Gilbert's arrival in 2009, he introduced several projects that injected huge excitement and energy into the orchestra — and into the cultural life of the city. During his watch, Gilbert created a new music festival called the NY Phil Biennial, began programming exciting, semi-staged cross-discipline productions (including Ligeti's terribly underheard opera Le Grand Macabre). As I wrote in 2011, he created a new tradition in the city: an "annual mad rush of hipsters and septuagenarians alike to the limited run of whatever New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert has cooked up to end the season."

"The center is wider than it used to be, and now I think, frankly, I don't know any other orchestra that has a track record of the big marquee production and events and festivals that we've done."

Gilbert branched out to the city beyond Lincoln Center, taking the orchestra to far edgier venues like the Park Avenue Armory. He also spearheaded an effort to revive interest in the music of Carl Nielsen, and released a whole cycle of Nielsen recordings with the orchestra for the Danish Dacapo label. As the orchestra's president, Matthew VanBiesen, himself a quite recent and youthful arrival at the Phil, says in the press release announcing Gilbert's departure: "Alan has changed the DNA of this place."

So why is Gilbert leaving, and why now? In the press release, the next renovation of the acoustically unsatisfactory Avery Fisher Hall — which is tentatively scheduled to begin in 2019 — was pointed to as a major factor in the conductor's decision. Justin Davidson reports on Vulture that Gilbert "didn't want to commit to the orchestra for another six or seven years."

And now the horse race begins to see who will step in. In the classical world, when it comes to contract negotiations and scheduling, 2017 is barely a blink of an eye away. With many of the most talked about and dynamic marquee conductors tied up in long-term contracts with other American orchestras, at the moment Gilbert's successor is anybody's guess.

In the meantime, Gilbert hasn't revealed his long-term post-Phil plans, though he'll be returning to help program the 2017-18 edition of the Biennial. He told the New York Times' Michael Cooper, in an interview published this morning, that he hopes to conduct more operas in the years ahead. Does he have his eye on another institution across the Lincoln Center plaza?

This afternoon, Alan Gilbert stopped by NPR's New York bureau to talk with me about his departure, and about his tenure at the Philharmonic. The audio is at the top of this page; here is a transcript of our conversation. - AT

Anastasia Tsioulcas: I'd like to know what precipitated this decision.

Alan Gilbert: I don't think precipitated is the right word, because it's something that I've been thinking about for a long time, and I've been talking to Matthew VanBiesen, our president, and select members of the board for a long time. You know, it's not something that I talked about way back when, but when I was starting the job — believe it or not, and I'm actually a little surprised that somehow it's worked out exactly this way, but when I was starting, I thought kind of in my mind, eight years would be just about right. That's not an explanation, and certainly not a justification for what is happening, but it's kind of interesting to me that this has ended up being the amount of time that feels right for me.

There are many levels in which I can talk about this, but actually it's pretty straightforward, and what we've said in the release and what I've said so far is actually the story. I feel that the orchestra needs someone to shepherd it through this upcoming hall renovation project and carry it through to its logical conclusion which is obviously the re-opening of the hall, and as the schedule has become more and more concrete, and more and more clear, that's not going to be — it's clear that, it's obvious, that's not going to be until 2021 at the earliest. That's six, seven years from now.

I still have two and a half years on my current contract, and I just — it's not for me. It feels too long. I feel like I'm ready to move on to the next thing. There's a part of me that says, well, it's a little bit on the early side, but I'd rather leave a little bit too early than a little bit too late, and in these eight years — well, it's only six so far — but I hope that the progress and the momentum that I think we've generated up until now will continue, I fully expect it will. And at the end of eight years, I think it will have been a body of work and hopefully an accomplishment and achievement that will feel about exactly right.

AT: Well, when you talk about shepherding, obviously this is going to be an orchestra in transition — physically, as well as sort of, I don't know, spiritually, extra-musically. Is that the kind of shepherding you're thinking of in particular?

AG: It's a big deal to think about building a new hall or renovating a new hall, creating a new home for any orchestra. I think it's a huge opportunity, both for the New York Philharmonic and also for Lincoln Center and the city at large. There will be a lot of moving parts: The orchestra will have to find places to play, will have to figure out how to deal with its subscription audience, I mean there are a lot of — that's not only logistics, it becomes a philosophical question of what to do during the two years that the orchestra will not have a regular home to play.

A sense of continuity and a sense of stability is so important for the organization. You know, I've said before it would be something that I would be proud of if I were the one to do it, but the time spent has just become longer than I think what feels right for me, personally. And so, in order to give the orchestra ample time hopefully, to identify my successor and put someone in place and give that person enough time to build up a relationship with the audience in order to be that sort of symbol of continuity while the orchestra is — I mean, "at sea" sounds negative. I actually do think it's a big opportunity for the orchestra to make a connection with the city in a new way, but it's going to be somebody else doing that.

AT: I appreciate what you're saying sort of about continuity, because obviously it's an organization that's very closely tied to the Lincoln Center campus, though you've done so much to sort of take it outside of that space and around the city.

AG: I've tried to do that, and you know it's kind of an obvious moment for me to look back at where we came from and what we've done over the years. Frankly, a lot of what we've accomplished, I was told early on, "You know what — don't expect to ever succeed in these areas, there's too much entrenched thinking." And I won't go into exactly the conversations I've had, but I guess people were trying to manage my expectations. At the end of the day, or at the end of today, or by now, we've done a lot. And the very culture and sort of the premise upon which the orchestra operates has significantly — radically, even — changed. I think that the way New Yorkers look at the orchestra and think about it is very different from any other time I can think of, and I've known the orchestra for a long time.

AT: Especially so.

AG: Well, yeah. You know, I love New York, I love the orchestra. You know, I remember when I started floating ideas for my first season with the artistic team that I had, Grand Macabre wasn't even on their radar screen, and it was a crazy, pie-in-the-sky idea to introduce that in my first season. If I suggested something like that now, it would be normal in the best sense. I think that, I don't know if there was skepticism, there was full support, and the institution really mobilized it to announce that incredible production of Ligeti's Grand Macabre that we did, but a lot of people didn't know what we were getting into. There's was a little bit of sense of "Okay, let's let Gilbert get it out of his system. We'll do this, and then we'll go back to what we really do."

Of course, what we really do is a lot of things, and I think that's the point. I've tried to expand the notion of what it is that we really do, because we have to stay obviously true to our traditions — playing Beethoven and playing Tchaikovsky. It's crucial, and it's right down the center of what we do, but the center is wider than it used to be, and now I think, frankly, I don't know any other orchestra that has a track record of the big marquee production and events and festivals that we've done. And now, you know, that's one of the things I said when I started, I want there to be a constant stream of surprising good news coming out of the New York Philharmonic, and I think it's starting to really take. It's also about building up a relationship and a sense of trust with our audience and I can feel that. That has developed. So I'm really proud of that, and if I may say so myself, creating that kind of initial shift in an organization like the New York Philharmonic — that's the hardest thing. Of course continuing it is a challenge and it won't be in my hands after I leave, obviously. Hopefully, I've positioned the organization to really maintain that new trajectory and continue to — it's note even to think out of the box. It's just a bigger box now.

AT: Well I think those are incredibly important ideas and incredibly important to make that gravitational shift in the organization's thinking, and obviously the New York Philharmonic has a very particular place in our culture. But you think there are lessons that other orchestras — large, small — can take away from what you've done at the Phil in terms of shifting that mind-set?

AG: I'm not doing it to sort of consciously lead the way. I won't lie to you, it's been amusing and gratifying when I hear arts administrators from other organizations, other orchestras, say, "Well, you know what we do, frankly, is we wait and see what the Philharmonic is doing. And then you see on our schedule, a year or two later we start doing the same thing."

AT: Have you really heard that?

AG: I have actually heard that.

AT: Wow.

AG: I don't take credit for changing the tide or changing the course of music, but I know that people do look at what we do and are really interested, because now we have a track record and for the most part, even my wildest, most ambitious ideas have been embraced. For that I'm extremely grateful, both eternally and externally. I mean it requires a real – you know, it takes a village. It really requires the buy-in of — if not everybody, of most everybody in the organization. There's so many moving parts, and the Philharmonic as an institution is such a complicated organism. You can really tell when a group has its stuff together, and I feel that more and more that's the case. That leads to a sense of inevitability, in terms of the way what you offer can be received, and I've spoken from early on about building up a relationship and a sense of trust with our audience, so that no matter what we do, even if people don't know what it is or haven't heard of this composer or have no idea what the project is going to feel like or look like or sound like, they'll say, "Oh well, if Gilbert or the Philharmonic are doing it, we'll give it a try." And I actually think that's happening. I personally think I do have a lot of thoughts about the state of orchestras and the business as it were. I hate to call it a business, but you know what I mean in this context.

I think that orchestras are having to change and are being constantly challenged by new circumstances. We can talk about the modes of delivery that people have at their disposal to receive entertainment: instant streaming, Internet ... you name it, it's a totally different landscape right now. The orchestras that are going to succeed are the ones that somehow stay true to their essence and traditions as symphonic, concert-presenting organizations, but are also able to go with the flow, and take risks and try to connect with people in a new way. I've mentioned the Grand Macabre. And more than doing the Grand Macabre, the big thought behind that project, and other live things that we've done, is finding a new audience, but a new way of connecting with our audience — redefining what the experience of hearing a symphony orchestra is. Every project that we've done, even if it's been operatic or theatrical or experimental, essentially has the symphony orchestra at its core. So it's not about turning the symphony orchestra into something else — it's about showing the myriad facets that a symphony orchestra can, and I believe should, have in the modern-day age.

AT: And what advice or values — well, what advice would you give a successor to you and what values would you hope that person could bring to the organization?

AG: It's a good question; it's an interesting question. Obviously some of my pet projects, like the Biennial — which we've only did one but we're coming back with Biennial Two later this season. I'm already committed to helping curate the 2018 incarnation ... I'm really proud that the NY Philharmonic is the presenter and the driving force behind this. I mean it's a big deal for music, for contemporary music, and for New York City to be able to host this. Obviously, I hope it continues far into the future. I personally think it should. I hope it will, and I know there are a lot of people in the organization who agree with me and will do their best to keep it going. But at the end of the day, whoever follows me or whoever is doing any job anywhere in any field, I think will do well to be true to him or herself. There are a lot of ideas. Some are good; some are bad; some are right; some are wrong. It's not even so important whether an idea or initiative is good, or bad, or right or wrong — it has to be sincere. So I would never want my successor to do something that I implemented simply to keep it going. It would have to be something that they could honestly put their heart into.

I certainly hope that the sense of daring and experimentation and risk-taking that I think has become normal in the best sense for us, I hope that continues. It's obvious, it's manifest, that that's how I feel like orchestra should function, because that's how I led the orchestra up until now. As I've said, I think that orchestras and organizations — we've all heard of the orchestras that are struggling and even closing. I'm not saying it's because they didn't embrace risk-taking necessarily, but the fact is that we have to look at the altered landscape and roll with it as it exists.

But I do think to underline this point, what big institutions such as the New York Philharmonic need is a human touch, is a personal face, a point of view that actually comes from a very honest place. It's very easy — there's so many pressures to do it this way and satisfy this consituency, or make sure that this part of our audience is not alienated. There are a lot of things that enter the discussion. At the end of the day, what I try to do when I program, is present music, perform music that I really believe in.

Obviously, I'm a professional musician. I spend my life doing music. Not everybody does that, so in that sense I'm unusual I guess, but on the other hand — I'm just a normal guy. And I figure, if something can touch me, if something can turn me on, make me excited, there's a good chance that there are other people in the world will react in the same way but it has to be presented sincerely. I think that the attitude of, "Okay, well if you're going to play Stockhausen, then you're going to make sure to play Beethoven in the same program" is understandable, but should not be the driving force behind decision-making, because it amounts to hedging and not really putting your full passion behind what you do.

I think that obviously people are most comfortable with what they know best. But that doesn't mean that they're not willing to experiment, certainly in New York of all places — I mean, we have so many different people, so many different choices. We should embrace that, and I hope that that spirit of really honest communication is what the New York Philharmonic does forever.

AT: Well, I can't help but ask with all this talk about NY Philharmonic as an institution, what the next steps might be for you. I know you talked to Michael [Cooper, at the New York Times] about maybe more things in Europe. I know maybe more opera. Would you consider another American post?

AG: I really couldn't say. You know, once you conducted the New York Philharmonic and been its music director — that's pretty much, that's the top of the game in the States. And I've been really, it was an enormous challenge when I started and it has been, it's pretty much all-consuming. I've loved it, I really feel a great rapport with the musicians. They give everything, this orchestra that has had — completely wrongly — but has had the reputation for being difficult in rehearsals and with conductors. I've never seen that, certainly with me, or even with other conductors that I know that they don't like. I mean, they're consummate professionals, and they do their best every time they're on stage. It's an amazing privilege and pleasure to work with them. The daily demands of the job are enormous, and I'm not the first person who has talked about this. It's a very taxing job because they're — I believe in doing it. I think it's important to do and I really want symphonic music to flourish in the United States . It's been great to have the chance to throw myself into it.

I have three young kids. I'm very curious about lots of different things. I'm excited about having more flexibility to choose to do other things. As far as taking another position in the States —

AT: Or elsewhere —

AG: Well, you mentioned the States. I would say there are specific challenges that go along with being a music director of a top orchestra in the States, that I'm not sure I feel the need to do that again. Once you've done it at the New York Philharmonic, that's a very strong experience and it's not necessary to repeat it, perhaps. In Europe, I have a lot of orchestras that I'm very close to and that I've built relationships with over the years. I feel very comfortable working in Europe and in Germany particularly. We still have our home in Stockholm. I'm laureate conductor of the Stockholm Philharmonic. I conduct them as often as I can, but it's not even possible every year necessarily to get there, so it should be possible to bring that back as a regular element to my schedule. I'm excited about that.

Opera: you know I'm in the middle of a Don Giovanni run — well, just started it, actually. We've only had one performance at the Metropolitan Opera. It's so great to be back in the pit. I feel extremely comfortable there and I love the world of the theater. I did a lot more before the New York Philharmonic. But I put a conscious stop on that area while I've been at the Philharmonic because it takes a lot of time to do opera. It's time that I love to spend in the opera house, but it just didn't make sense with all the things that I had to do with the Philharmonic. You had to develop a chunk of time. This has worked out well, because it's a revival at the Met and it's at home. I'm in New York, but it really reminds me how much I like to do opera. So I'm looking forward to getting one or two operas back in every season, but we'll see. I'm not leaving the Philharmonic in order to go somewhere else, but obviously it does make it possible to think about other things.

AT: Well, you know the horse-racing bets have already started, you know — inevitably. I completely understand I think what you're saying, or have some glimpse of what you're saying. about the difference in the demands put on an American music director, or at a position at an American orchestra rather than abroad. So I would imagine, you are or would consider similar posts in Europe?

AG: I wouldn't rule it out. I'm not looking for such a position right now. But again, I've spent a lot of my life in Europe. My wife is Swedish, my sister lives in France We spend a lot of — I mean my parents have an apartment in France, near where my sister lives. There's a strong pull in that direction. And yeah, it would be fun. I'm always looking at new challenges, and that's something that I would be interested in trying at some point. I was music director of the Stockholm Philharmonic for eight years — also eight years. That seems to be a good amount of time for me at different places! But that was my first position with an orchestra, and I remember thinking when I was leaving there, "Ah, you know what, I would love to have another chance." Because the first few years I remember I was just finding my way. I'm glad I did that position before I came to the New York Philharmonic. Even though it's totally different, it's just the responsibility of guiding an organization of that orchestra. It was really useful to me, but now — yeah, maybe, maybe, maybe another time, but again, it's actually not something I'm looking for but now is theoretically possible.

AT: Is there any repertoire that you're absolutely dying to tackle in the next couple of seasons before you go? I mean, I feel like there's the Biennial, which is obviously a huge thing and you'll still be involved in that. The Nielsen project — the last recording was just issued. Are there any other big goalposts that you'd like to do?

AG: Well, as far as the repertoire that I'll do in the next two and a half years — I mean, next year is already announced and planned. I have one more season and now I can start thinking about it as my final season as music director of the New York Philharmonic. It takes on a new dimension as soon as I call it that. And so it does make me think, okay what will I really like to do in this final season?

I've repeated very little repertoire. I've done many, many things over the years, so it's not as if I missed pockets of the repertoire. I've always wish we had more time to do Mozart and Haydn. There's a demand to use the [full] orchestra, and it comes internally and externally. People want to hear the Philharmonic play in its full splendor and glory, and I think the orchestra shines in the big repertoire, the big, glamorous repertoire. And so it's great to do. But when you go on tour, people always want to hear big pieces, and you also want to work with the presenters. It seems to be hard to get enough Mozart and Haydn, so I definitely want to do that. But into the future, we are talking about recognizing Bernstein — he has a big anniversary coming up, and the recordings of the Nielsen have come out sounding so good. I just love the way the orchestra sounds on those, and the team that's done that is really interested to keep recording with me and the orchestra. You know, we haven't talked about it and it's probably premature to even mention it but I would love to record the Bernstein canon with the New York Philharmonic. That would be really fun for me and I think it would turn out to be really spectacular.

AT: Especially now that you're talking about an orchestra that sort of — I mean obviously there's the history of Bernstein and the Phil, but you're talking about generations of players who have that sort of Bernstein sensibility in their gene pool — do you know what I mean?

AG: Of course I know what you mean. I feel it every time I conduct Bernstein with them, and there's no other orchestra that can touch the New York Philharmonic in that music.

AT: Not just historically, in terms of — I don't know if the right word is generational approach, but it's sort of his sort of embrace of all music and sort of how you find that in so much of his work, is there.

AG: I couldn't agree more. Anyway, for me that would be an idea worth pursuing, so we'll see if that goes anywhere.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a correspondent on NPR's Culture desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including the trial and conviction of former R&B superstar R. Kelly; backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; and gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards.