Chattering Class

Philharmonic Conductor (and Secret Jazz Cat) Alan Gilbert

The leader of one of the world's great orchestras says the state of classical music is, ahem, sound.

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Stephen Lovekin / Getty Images Entertainment
Stephen Lovekin / Getty Images EntertainmentStephen Lovekin / Getty Images Entertainment

The New York Philharmonic is the oldest orchestra in the United States. It’s been led by the likes of Mahler, Toscanini, Bernstein and, for the past five years, Alan Gilbert. The Philharmonic’s in the midst of their beloved annual concert-in-the-park series, so it seemed like a perfect time for Brendan to sit down to talk with the Maestro… excuse us: “Alan.”

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Brendan Francis Newnam: Am I supposed to call you Maestro?

Alan Gilbert: You know, I really prefer not to be called Maestro, frankly.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But isn’t it like with chefs in the kitchen? You’re supposed to, when you’re working with a chef, call them “Chef.”

Alan Gilbert: I think generally, in the States, it feels more artificial. It feels like something that people do because they know they’re supposed to.  So if that’s the motivation, then I’d just say forget about it. In Europe, it doesn’t feel as strange and I think that’s just more cultural somehow.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s like when Americans try to kiss when they’re greeting people. It just seems awkward, as opposed to maybe the French.

Alan Gilbert: Well, speak for yourself.

Brendan Francis Newnam: We did kiss when we met each other earlier, that’s true. Anyway… how’s classical music doing?

Alan Gilbert: I think classical music is doing really well! When people talk about a decline in culture and the position that classical music has in our society, it often happens that that kind of idea is separated from the bigger picture.

You know, we all wish that there were more people coming to our concerts — I think that’s pretty universal.  But the fact is it’s such a crazy world we live in now. There’s so many options, there’s so many things going on, and people have so many choices. I think in the grand scheme of things, we’re doing really well.

Classical music does kind of have its superstars like Lang Lang and other folks. They’re people who I think are really stars. I admire Gustavo Dudamel in many ways, but [one is] the fact that he has, you know, 500,000 Twitter followers. That’s awesome.

Brendan Francis Newnam: He has good hair.

Alan Gilbert: [laughs] I would say for me, he’s such… he’s such a hero because he’s a great musician, but also he’s someone that people will move heaven and earth to get to hear him.  And that’s the kind of thing that’s great for classical music.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And for a lot of programs, it’s not easy getting a ticket on a Friday night at the Philharmonic. It seems like, at least in this town, things are going well for classical music.

Alan Gilbert: We’re doing, I think, really well. We’re in the middle of a great festival, the Beethoven piano concertos with Yefim Bronfman. It’s nice to be reminded all over again, first of all, how great the music is, but [also], how meaningful it can be.

Y’know, one way to measure a concert — and I think on stage we all do this a little bit — is the number of coughs we hear in the audience?  And lately the audience has been so rapt and concentrated. And you can sense it: It’s not just a quiet, it’s a kind of devoted quiet that really is what it’s all about.

Brendan Francis Newnam: What I find most fascinating about being conductor is that you have to be in the future, in the present, right? You have to be a beat ahead?

Alan Gilbert: That’s exactly right. It’s not quite that simple, but it’s true that if you want to show… let’s give a simple example: a loud event. You actually have to start making a loud-looking gesture a beat before it happens. So it’s not that you’re beating at a different time, but the gesture has to reflect what’s about to happen.  So yeah, that’s true — that’s a funny thing about conductors.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, like most conductors, you play instruments like the piano and the violin.  But I read that, when you were a kid, you were into drums.

Alan Gilbert: Drums was the instrument I chose when we chose instruments in fourth or fifth grade. I started taking drums with a teacher in a class at my school. And we had a drum set in our apartment and my parents — I actually realize now what a big deal it was for them to do this, because I would never, never accept this — but the drum set was in their bedroom.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Wow. Loving parents.

Alan Gilbert: I didn’t practice a lot, but when I practiced, obviously it was there in their bedroom!

I’ve always loved jazz. And it just came up recently: We’ve done a couple of projects with the great Japanese jazz pianist Makoto Ozone.  And he was over at our apartment for dinner one night, and we had a little to drink — or more than a little to drink — and we started talking about the drums.  And he said “Hey, man, you should play drums.” And I thought, “Yeah, that would be cool.”  And I did a professional jazz gig as a drummer in Tokyo in February.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Are we in danger of you dropping out, growing a beard, moving away, and becoming a jazz cat?

Alan Gilbert: You know… I wouldn’t rule it out.