His NY Years Receding, Gilbert Finds Himself In Several Happy Places

Alan Gilbert on a staircase in Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie (Photos by Peter Hundert)

PERSPECTIVE — When Alan Gilbert announced that he would step down in 2017 as music director of the New York Philharmonic after a relatively short tenure of eight years, a dark cloud seemed to form over both the conductor and the orchestra.

“This move raises questions about how satisfied the administration is with Mr. Gilbert’s work and sends uncertain signals about the orchestra’s future,” wrote New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini in an analysis of the resignation.

But in the six years since his departure, Gilbert has left any disharmony with the New York Philharmonic far in the rear-view mirror. He quickly landed on his feet, taking over in 2019-20 as chief conductor of Hamburg’s NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, an ensemble eager to tap into his groundbreaking spirit. In addition, he assumed the music directorship of the Royal Swedish Opera in 2021 and continues a regular if limited schedule of guest conducting with a select group of top orchestras, including the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Boston Symphony.

Although most of his work is in Europe, the American conductor has returned to his homeland this summer for appearances at the La Jolla (Calif.) Music Society’s Summerfest and the Santa Fe (N.M.) Chamber Music Festival, which is marking its 50th anniversary. “I’m pretty much not working in the States these days,” Gilbert said, “so I try to show up in the summer, and it’s also my time to play more violin and conduct chamber-orchestra pieces.” He is good friends with Marc Neikrug, artistic director of the Santa Fe festival, and he has performed there regularly. Pianist Inon Barnatan, another friend of Gilbert, took over in 2019 as artistic director of the La Jolla festival, where Gilbert appeared once previously. “He’s been trying to get me there since he started running the place,” the conductor said.   

A high point of Gilbert’s Santa Fe residency will be a rare performance Aug. 13 of Olivier Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars). Arts philanthropist Alice Tully commissioned the massive 12-movement piece in 1971 to mark the American bicentennial. Inspiration for the work came from the birds and landscape of Utah, especially Bryce Canyon, which Messiaen visited while working on the composition. Gilbert conducted the work at the festival in 2015, and Neikrug wanted to reprise it as part of the series’ 50th-anniversary celebration. “It’s not a piece that you often repeat, especially in the same place, but he so believes in it that he asked me to do it again,” Gilbert said. (A recording of the 2015 performance can be heard on YouTube by movement starting here.)

The work, which he describes as “exceptionally challenging and epic in every way,” requires four soloists and a 40-piece chamber orchestra. Barnatan served as the piano soloist last time in Santa Fe, and pianist Kirill Gerstein will take the role in this repeat performance. The other three soloists will be Stefan Dohr, principal horn of the Berlin Philharmonic; Daniel Druckman, associate principal percussion of the New York Philharmonic; and Gregory Zuber, principal percussion of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

Gilbert with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, which he has led since 2019, at home in Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie

Gilbert is a Messiaen fan who has performed the composer’s celebrated chamber work Quartet for the End of Time as a violinist multiple times and led other works, including the Turangalîla-Symphonie and Oiseaux exotiques. But the conductor has never taken on the composer’s only opera, St. Francis of Assisi, which debuted at the Paris Opera in 1983. “That’s a dream of mine,” he said. “I hope I get to it while I’m still alive.”

The son of two now-retired New York Philharmonic violinists, Michael Gilbert and Yoko Takebe, Gilbert, 56, began his career as assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1995-97. He later served as principal conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the NDR Symphony Orchestra (now the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra), which set the stage for his current music directorship.

Gilbert’s appointment as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 2007 generated considerable excitement because of his familial connections to the orchestra and because he was the first native New Yorker to hold the job. He sought to reinvent the symphony orchestra for the 21st century, with imaginatively staged opera presentations, including Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, an expanded role for composers-in-residence, and a much greater emphasis on contemporary music. It is easy to wonder if he didn’t push too hard, and, at the same time, some of his performances of the central repertoire were criticized, though not by all critics.

“He has given performances of standards, from his reverent and stirring account of Bach’s Mass in B minor, to his stealthy, weighty take on Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, that sent me home thinking hard about works I thought I knew thoroughly,” wrote Tommasini.

Gilbert’s belief that a 21st-century orchestra should be much more than just a repository for historical classics has been fully embraced by the Elbphilharmonie Orchestra. “It’s nice to be in a place where people, without question, are ready to run with that idea,” he said. “So, of course, we do the standards. We play our Brahms symphonies and use the tradition the orchestra has, but we’re also doing things like I did in New York, but we’re taking it one step further in Hamburg.”

There has been enthusiasm for his projects both from the orchestra and the Elbphilharmonie (Elbe Philharmonic Hall), which co-sponsors many of the events outside the orchestra’s main concert series like staged opera productions and themed festivals. “And they specifically want us to come up with interesting, innovative ideas, and we share the costs, and we share the production demands,” he said. “It’s a very easy place to let your imagination run.”

Gilbert’s tenure with the orchestra began just two years after the much-acclaimed opening of the Elbphilharmonie in 2017. Designed by the cutting-edge Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, the crystalline structure sits atop a historical brick warehouse on the Elbe River. “It’s an amazing place to be because of the offerings there, the guest orchestras that are streaming through, and the top artists that are there,” Gilbert said. “I think, without exaggeration, it’s become the greatest concert series pretty much anywhere. So, to be the resident orchestra is a huge honor, and it keeps us on our A game because we’re having to produce at the top level all the time.”

The conductor, with Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie in the distance on the Elbe River

There has been controversy about the hall’s acoustics, which a Forbes critic described early on as dry and unforgiving. Taking a more positive tack, Gilbert described the sound as “very revealing.” “It just means that you have to know how to play in it. It’s a great place to play. It’s nice to have that as my office pretty much half of my time these days.”

Gilbert speaks German often in rehearsals with the Elbphilharmonie Orchestra but switches to English when necessary. “There are certain things that I absolutely think I express better in English,” he said. “They all speak English, so that works. I’ve done interviews, I’ve done TV in German. I speak a lot of languages, but my problem is that I’m a perfectionist, and I hate to make mistakes.”

The conductor commutes to Hamburg from Stockholm, where he resides with his wife, a member of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, and their three children. His complementary position at the Royal Swedish Opera allows him to conduct three or four productions a year there without having to leave home. “Finally, I’ve been able to exercise my opera chops,” he said, “and it’s always been something I love, and to have that as the other main pillar in my musical life is great. It’s a wonderful place to work — great singers, a beautiful house.”

If the end of Gilbert’s New York Philharmonic tenure was a rocky time in his career, he professes to be quite satisfied now. “I think I’ve hit a really good spot,” he said, “where I’m doing what I want to do, and I certainly have enough work — maybe too much. But it’s pretty manageable now with my two main locations, and the guest conducting I’m doing is in places where I’m really happy to be.”