Alan Gilbert – the first dissenting voices

Alan Gilbert – the first dissenting voices


norman lebrecht

January 20, 2011

Buoyed by his cheerleaders at the New York Times, the chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic has enjoyed a pretty easy run in his first season and a half. No-one local has questioned his international standing (low), his temperament (fractious) or his parentage (both were players in the Philharmonic, trailing a whiff of nepotism).

When he took over as head of Juilliard’s conducting program last week, the Times hack hailed the appointment in terms usually reserved for the Second Coming. No-one, the Times reported, had ever held both posts before. Gilbert was evidently a better maestro than Mahler, Toscanini, Mitropoulous, Bernstein, Boulez or any other predecessor.
Mercifully, New York is a diverse town and if its manifold opinions do not get aired in print media they can always find other outlets. Will Robin, in his Seated Ovation blog, brings an insider view from Juilliard, describing Gilbert as ‘a bratty child’ who had to ‘micromanage’ instruments in the orchestra, demanded constant eye-contact and achieved limited results. Telling the young musicians that they had ‘their heads up their asses’ did not go down too well with students or faculty. But they gave him the job because the Philharmonic has put all its eggs in Gilbert’s basket and the Times blows a trumpet of unremitting praise.
One sour blog, based in Berlin and citing an anonymous whistle-blower, does not burst the Gilbert bubble. There will be many more hallelujahs from the Times before the Philharmonic’s new clothes are proved to be insubstantial. Nevertheless, the dissenting voices from Juilliard are a New York first. Watch for more. 
Meantime, here’s some more commentary on the tyranny of eye contact and a lavish piece of Gilbert puffery from his house journal (photos James Estrin, NY Times)..


  • Kit Baker says:

    Well, I’m sure every NY Phil Music Director has had their detractors. I personally have never seen the NY Phil players more engaged than they are under Gilbert. I also believe Gilbert is doing a huge and long overdue service in programming an appropriately substantial number of important late 20th century works and new 21st century music at the highest level.
    But… “bratty child”? You really want to go there?
    During some helpful and informative introductory comments in the Contact! contemporary music series, Gilbert made a point of praising the NY Phil musicians, and, when the audience applauded in agreement, hastened to add that he was not just saying that, but he really believed it. It was genuine and decidedly not bratty. Then he went on to lead the players in a jaw-droppingly powerful and expansive performance of Grisey’s “Quatre Chants pour franchir le seuil”. It was one of the best performances I’ve experienced in years.
    I did, however, detect some subtle jostling for prominence between Gilbert and the presenter of the live radio broadcast, John Schaefer, as they introduced the piece. Will Robin would no doubt have seen his “bratty child” here. I saw a glimmer of the uncompromising focus and strong ego that I suspect any NY Phil Music Director would need to unify those dozens of exceptionally strong willed musical personalities in the orchestra.
    (Equally, some may see the photos you published above, along with the somewhat awkward YouTube promo videos for Le Grand Macabre, as “puffery”. I see them as a much-needed antidote to the “cache” that has been historically attached to participation in the life of this orchestra – which I believe Sir Simon Rattle once implied was one of the reasons he bowed out of contention for the NY Phil job. It’ll take time to get the tone right, but what you call ‘puffery’ is, for me, a laudable attempt to create a new, more open and relaxed tone of public engagement)
    At the Lincoln Center Festival last summer, Peter Stein was asked how he felt about being labeled a “difficult” director. He replied that his objective has always been to achieve the high standards of production quality that are necessary in order to successfully stage great works, and that sometimes his insistence on reaching those high standards could upset people.
    As he spoke, he seemed genuinely hurt – perhaps remorseful at having made life difficult for some cherished coworkers, while at the same time despairing at the way his motives had been misunderstood. He seemed to hold out no hope that this problem would ever be resolved, or that his answer would make anything better – it was something that was part of the territory, and which he would continue to struggle with.
    If you read “bratty” for “difficult”, I’ll bet you two prime seats for the next world premiere Gilbert programs for the NY Phil that the same is true for him – and that makes Gilbert’s considerable achievements to date no less great.

  • Kit Baker says:

    Correction – I meant “cachet”, not “cache”! Although feel free to speculate what secret stash the NY Phil might have been sharing with its inner circle all these years…

  • Anonymous says:

    I don’t buy it, Kit Baker. The music-making isn’t first-rate, and the podium facility is weak. I’ve heard several shows of his where he couldn’t even keep the orchestra together. The facility just isn’t there. The guy they just hired in Philly is much better. I’d bet he didn’t cost as much either. Just a guess. Got any reporting on that, Lebrecht?