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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Alan Gilbert stumbles into New York

By Norman Lebrecht / October 7, 2009

The induction of a new music director at the New York Philharmonic has not gone to plan. Urged to freshen up its list of august frontmen with a native-born youngish conductor, America’s oldest orchestra (est. 1842) elected, after a stuttering search, for the son of two of its own musicians.

Alan Gilbert, 42, had been leading the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in Sweden for eight years and made a solid Metropolitan Opera debut last November with John Adams’ Doctor Atomic. Young-looking, bicultural - his mother is Japanese - and media-friendly, he ticked all requisite boxes and was ushered into office by the New York Times in a fawning series of articles unmatched in media memory since the British press elevated Simon Rattle to podium power in Berlin.

First, the Times reported Gilbert going out to greet people standing in line for a dress rehearsal. Then it took us on an exclusive feature tour of his dressing room, ‘still showing the remnants of maestro sweat’. Looped into the Philharmonic press office, the Times went on to serenade a $10 million grant from financier Henry R Kravis to support Gilbert’s new music plans, starting with a residency by the Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg.

It also broke exciting news that Gilbert had changed the seating plan in the orchestra, splitting the two string sections antiphonally, in the European manner. All was set fair for a triumphal opening night in mid-September with America’s favourite soprano, Renee Fleming, except the tinder failed to ignite.

Outside of the Times, whose chief critic Anthony Tommasini praised Gilbert’s ‘rhythmically honest playing’ and personal modesty, Anne Midgette in the Washington Post lamented a lack of excitement in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, while Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times deplored a dearth of wit. Early days, perhaps, but the charge of dullness will not easily be dispelled, the more so when Gilbert’s new Stockholm recording of Mahler’s ninth symphony (on Bis records) is remarkable mainly for its lack of character. Like Rattle in Brahms, newly on EMI, he adds nothing new or personal by way of insight and interpretation. I plan to hear Gilbert in his third month in New York, when the changes should have settled down, but his opening moves could scarcely be less auspicious.

On the political front, meanwhile, a simmering fracas could turn into a public scandal. The Philharmonic made headlines in February 2008 by visiting North Korea with its previous music director Lorin Maazel. Aside from dining handsomely in a famine-stricken land, the musicians achieved no thaw in global relations as the hard-faced Pyongyang regime continued to test nuclear devices, along with Barack Obama’s patience.

Undeterred, the Philharmonic scheduled Cuba for its next tour in October 2009. But within a fortnight of Alan Gilbert’s accession, the trip was called off. The Philharmonic announced it could not go to Havana because Washington would not let it take along 150 board members and unspecified others, ‘without whose financial support this trip is not possible.’ The State Department, which backed the orchestra’s Asian initiatives, balked apparently at the sight of 150 rich New Yorkers paying $10,000 to drink rum and coke in a country where ordinary Americans are forbidden to travel.

So what was the point of this trip? If it was a real diplomatic mission, it would have gone ahead regardless of donors. If, on the other hand, it was just a publicity stunt, Philharmonic president, Zarin Mehta, should be hauled over coals for taking wealthy pals on a tax-free vacation in the middle of a world recession. Mehta is well paid to keep the orchestra in tune with the times (not just the Times). He took home $2.7 million last year, $800,000 in salary, the rest in ‘deferred compensation’. Mehta, brother of former music director Zubin, appears to have lost touch with New York city workers who want top-flight concerts and less political spin.

The Philharmonic’s discomfitures could not have come at a worse time. Across the country, 18,000 jubilant young people turned out in the Hollywood Bowl to greet the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its new chief conductor Gustavo Dudamel, locally known by the divinity G*D. Dudamel, just 28, led an informal opening concert of Beethoven’s ninth symphony that achieved, in Mark Swed’s view, ‘record levels of exhilaration’.

Dudamel, who opens officially with Mahler’s first Symphony and a new John Adams score on October 8, is reckoned to be the world’s hottest conductor. Alan Gilbert still has everything to prove. Los Angeles is embracing renewal. New York is looking ever so nervously over its shoulder. It promises to be an interesting year.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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