Commentary Magazine


The Incredible Shrinking Conductor

In February, the New York Philharmonic announced its 2012–13 season, the orchestra’s fourth under the leadership of Alan Gilbert, whose appointment as music director was the source of much favorable press when it was announced in 2007. No such reaction greeted the news that the Philharmonic would be offering its audiences, among other things, a four-concert Bach series, the symphonies and concertos of Brahms, and a concert version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel. Outside of the usual pro forma story in the New York Times, the silence was deafening.

Even more surprising was the unenthusiastic reaction of Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic for the Times and one of Gilbert’s staunchest advocates. “I am somewhat disappointed,” he wrote. “Too many programs plug new works or novelties into unremarkable groupings of standard repertory….Unleashing your imagination is the whole point of being a music director.”

Tommasini’s response contrasted sharply with the enthusiasm with which he and his colleagues greeted Gilbert’s appointment as the orchestra’s first New York–born music director. Virtually every music critic in town was delighted to hear that the Philharmonic would be led by a relatively young man—Gilbert was born in 1967—who was known for his performances of contemporary music. It was taken for granted that under his baton, the New York Philharmonic would—in the words of Alex Ross, music critic of the New Yorker—“put its virtuosity in the service of ideas,” and the public would be electrified by the results.

Cooler heads wondered why the Philharmonic had chosen to engage an artist who was mostly unknown to American concertgoers and who, so far as could be judged from out-of-town reviews, appeared to lack the star quality of such legendary Philharmonic conductors of the past as Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini, and Bruno Walter.

Since then, Gilbert has received his fair share of favorable reviews, and most critics agree that the orchestra is playing well for him. Moreover, he has delivered on his promise to modernize the Philharmonic’s programming, presenting such novelties as Olivier Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi and a concert version of György Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre. But what he has failed to do, at least so far, is make any significant impression on the public at large. He remains today what he was five years ago, an artist who is respected by his colleagues but largely unknown save to modern-music buffs. 

There is no understating the importance of the identity and comportment of the New York Philharmonic’s music master—who, by virtue of his placement in the cultural capital of the United States, has in the past served not only as a conductor of his own crew but more generally as the ambassador of symphonic music to the American people. So did the Philharmonic drop the ball with the selection of a comparatively untested and uncharismatic conductor?

Perhaps—though to call Alan Gilbert untested is to misrepresent his professional achievements. He began conducting as a student at Harvard, spent two years as an assistant conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra, and became chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra in 2000, leaving that post to take over the New York Philharmonic. During his time in Stockholm, he spent three seasons doubling as music director of the Santa Fe Opera, one of America’s top regional companies.

Be that as it may, Gilbert was in no way comparable in professional stature to the vast majority of his illustrious predecessors at the Philharmonic. At the time of his appointment, the press widely reported that it made sense for the orchestra to engage a younger conductor in order to bolster its appeal to younger audiences. Indeed, other top-tier symphony orchestras were and are grappling with the same problem. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is now led by Gustavo Dudamel, who at the astonishing age of 31 is 14 years younger than Gilbert.

Big Night: Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic at its opening night gala at Lincoln Center on September 21, 2011.

But it was also true—and just as widely written—that no conductor with an international reputation was willing to lead the New York Philharmonic, which has a well-deserved reputation for being an exceedingly tough group to handle (Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti had already turned down the job).

It would thus appear that the Philharmonic’s management decided both to make the best of a bad situation and to put the best possible public face on its decision to hire Gilbert, emphasizing his youth and the fact that he is a native New Yorker as well as the son of two Philharmonic violinists, Michael Gilbert and Yoko Takebe. In the carefully chosen words of Zarin Mehta, the orchestra’s president: “Every time he’s come here, it’s been better than the prior time. We’ve watched him grow. He’s a good musician. He’s approaching the prime of his career. He’s young and a New Yorker, and he has family in the orchestra.”

All true—but it is also true that Gilbert is not, and at present seems unlikely to become, a superstar of the podium. He has a bland, unassuming presence and a clear but undemonstrative stick technique, and he is not, in Alex Ross’s words, “the sort of conductor who slathers his personality over the music.” He is, rather, a skilled craftsman whose interpretations of the standard repertoire, while admirably tasteful and serious, tend as a rule not to be strongly individual in tone, much less interpretatively idiosyncratic.

Above all, Gilbert lacks the personal magnetism that nearly every major conductor of the past has had in hyper-abundance. Even his admirers admit as much. Tommasini, for instance, has described him in terms that were meant to be complimentary but struck an oddly left-handed note: “Mr. Gilbert is secure enough not to compete in the charisma department, to be content practicing his craft, championing living composers and connecting with audiences in New York.”

To be sure, the famously temperamental members of the Philharmonic, who have never been shy about criticizing their conductors, claim to think well of Gilbert. This is doubtless due in part to the fact that many of them have known him since he was a child, but they also admire—and rightly so—his technical prowess and musical knowledge. “This guy has everything,” says Carter Brey, the orchestra’s principal cellist. Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow agrees, calling him “a complete musician.” These views appear to be widely shared.

But orchestra players are not always the best judges of conductors. Not surprisingly, they put a high premium on musicianship and collegiality and therefore typically gravitate toward conductors who are both technically competent and personally likable. But the ability to galvanize a hundred musicians into giving a great performance—and to persuade the audience that it is hearing a great performance—entails more than mere competence. Many major conductors have had defective baton techniques, and some of them, including Serge Koussevitzky, were notoriously poor score readers. Nor is it especially advantageous to a conductor to be liked by his musicians. Few leaders of men, whether in music or in any other field of collective endeavor, have been likable, in the ordinary sense of the word.

The truth is that orchestral conducting is almost as much a dramatic art as a musical one. The violinist Carl Flesch put it well when he wrote that conducting is “the only musical activity in which a dash of charlatanism is not only harmless, but positively necessary.” And there is no reason to suppose that Alan Gilbert is in any way a charlatan. Instead, he gives every sign of being, in Anthony Tommasini’s words, “a solid, utterly professional conductor who will try to instill a collegial atmosphere within the ranks of the players rather than be their teacher.”

Solid, utterly professional, collegial—and colorless. That, it appears, is Alan Gilbert in a nutshell. Small wonder that he is finding it hard to make an impression on the general public. No doubt it is unfair to compare him with Leonard Bernstein, the most extravagantly charismatic conductor of the 20th century, but to watch the two men conducting Bernstein’s own “Candide” Overture (as one can do on YouTube) is to see at once the difference between a meticulous craftsman and a natural-born extrovert who, for all his formidable musical talent, was well aware that his histrionic gifts were an equally important part of what made him a great conductor.

The Philharmonic is making every effort to promote its youngish, biracial music director as “A Maestro for New York,” to quote the title of one of the orchestra’s promotional films about Alan Gilbert. It must be said that Gilbert does have the valuable knack of being able to talk engagingly about music, and perhaps he will also learn in time to project his personality more effectively on the podium. But even if he acquires the magnetism he now lacks, Gilbert will still be fighting an uphill battle, not merely owing to his want of glamour but because the audience for classical music is shrinking so rapidly. The National Endowment for the Arts, which conducts regular surveys of public participation in the arts, found that only 1 in 10 adults attended a classical concert in 2008—a drop of 28 percent since 1983. In the words of the arts consultant Patricia Martin, “Classical music is in hospice.”

Orchestras and opera companies across America are now grappling with this frightening new reality, in many cases unsuccessfully. Two respected regional ensembles, the New Mexico Symphony and the Syracuse Symphony, went out of business last year, while the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the world’s foremost orchestras, filed for bankruptcy protection. Even the New York Philharmonic is teetering on the edge of a fiscal abyss. Not only is the orchestra currently running seven-figure annual deficits, but it also has nearly $24 million in unfunded pension liabilities.

Gilbert continues to have the critics on his side. But he cannot count on receiving any other kind of sympathetic coverage, for the national media have withdrawn their attention from classical music. As a result, the New York Philharmonic has ceased to be a national institution, as it was in the days when Leonard Bernstein’s performances were telecast on CBS and recorded by Columbia Masterworks.

For the conductor of New York’s symphony to be sold in a parochial fashion as a “local boy makes good” offers a poignant example of the diminished standing of classical music in the United States. But it makes marketing sense, in a way, because the Philharmonic’s audience now consists almost entirely of New Yorkers. The same thing is true in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, St. Louis, San Francisco, and the other American cities that are home to first-tier orchestras. These groups have become local ensembles, not national ones, led by conductors whose names are for the most part not widely known elsewhere.

It is doubtful that the Philharmonic will ever again be a “national” orchestra. And although its institutional survival seems fairly secure, at least for the moment, few other American orchestras can make the same claim with any degree of certainty. In this respect, our symphony orchestras are not unlike the newspapers that once supported their activities by covering them extensively. Both institutions are increasingly local rather than national in reach. Both now seek to play a more modest and fiscally sustainable role in a hostile environment whose outlines were unimaginable as recently as a quarter-century ago. And both are fighting for their lives. Even if Alan Gilbert were as charismatic a personality as Leonard Bernstein, he could not win that battle by himself.

About the Author

Terry Teachout, Commentary’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, wrote about Meredith Willson in the last issue. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, will be produced in Lenox, Mass., this August by Shakespeare & Company.




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