Interview: New York Philharmonic Conductor Alan Gilbert

The Music Director Talks Orchestras, Beethoven, and the Future of Classical Music

New York Philharmonic Conductor Alan Gilbert
Courtesy Photo

The terms “orchestra conductor” and “humble” are seldom found in the same sentence. Yet both apply to Alan Gilbert. Ask the music director of the New York Philharmonic about his teaching technique — he is also director of conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School of Music — and his response is wryly self-deprecating: “A lot of what I teach them is by example. I always tell them to take what’s good and notice what doesn’t work.”

This week, Gilbert makes his debut at another great teaching venue, the Music Academy of the West. To kick off the school’s four-year partnership with the orchestra (which will include performances by the full ensemble in 2015 and 2017), he will lead master classes at 1 p.m. this Thursday, July 24, and 3:15 p.m. on Friday, July 25, at the Academy’s Montecito campus. He will then conduct members of the Festival Orchestra in the music of Schubert, Schönberg, and Thomas Adès on Saturday at the Lobero Theatre. He took time after a recent rehearsal to answer some questions from his Lincoln Center office.

You argue that the role of the orchestra in a city’s or a country’s cultural life is changing. In what ways? Over the last 50 years, there has been an obvious shift. Outreach into schools, multicultural initiatives — a lot of these things became a part of the orchestra’s portfolio. There was a vacuum that needed to be filled. I believe — and this is the premise of a lot of what drives me — that we’ve entered into the next chapter. What were noble, important, but ancillary activities have now become central. They’re part and parcel of what orchestras are.

In a sense, education is very much at the center of everything we do, including in our “normal” subscription concerts. So orchestras are fundamentally different now. The challenge for us is to remain true to the heritage and tradition — to play Beethoven as well as it’s possible to do so — but also use the energy and abilities of all the people in the organization as fully as possible, and being the richest possible resource for as many people as possible. I know this all sounds very lofty, but it’s really exciting to me.

How does the new partnership with the Music Academy fit into this new paradigm? Since I’ve started at the New York Philharmonic, we’ve been trying to build relationships and create situations in which we can really hunker down and develop connections with new audiences. When we tour, we want to do more than play a one-night stand and then move on to the next city. We spend two weeks [each year] at the Vail Music Festival. We’re going to start spending significant chunks of time every year in Shanghai. We have an ongoing relationship with the Barbican Centre in London.

First of all, this is practical: You don’t have to travel as much. But for me, it’s about being who we are, even on the road. So often orchestras do one thing at home, then trot out the warhorses on the road, playing a popular program in city after city. It’s great for people to hear that, but I’d like to try to preserve our musical identity, to stay true to who we are, even when we’re on the road. That’s much easier to do if we do multiple concerts and give people a chance to really get to know us.

In this context, the Music Academy of the West partnership fits right in and makes a lot of sense. It allows the Philharmonic to be connected to a wonderful, well-established school. My interest in education is very well-served by being able to work with the student orchestra there. I won’t say it’s a no-brainer, since a lot of work went into it, but a lot of things seemed to fall into place.

How do you incorporate your educational mission into the concerts themselves? I always try to create programs that utilize connections between pieces. I think that part of my job is to help people realize what there is to appreciate and enjoy about the widest range of music possible. It’s more than just using “bait” by putting a lesser-known piece on the first half of a program and then a Beethoven symphony on the second half. It’s also helping people understand that there are things they may not know about that they might actually love.

I often speak at concerts, which I guess is an overt form of education. But I never try to say anything particularly profound. I just want to make sure people realize the door is open (to new experiences) and they can walk through it themselves.

And if they stubbornly refuse to move? Even people who say they only want to hear Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Mozart — I don’t think that’s true. Even if they love those composers more than anyone else, which is totally understandable and legitimate, one’s appreciation of their music is enhanced when you hear those pieces in context. Wall-to-wall Beethoven is great, but you can understand more about Beethoven when it’s juxtaposed with other music. That’s even better. Beethoven was also a new composer at one time — a firebrand and a real risk-taker. It’s almost possible to take him for granted today. I think that should never happen.

Major financial problems have surfaced recently at the Metropolitan Opera and the San Diego Opera, among other institutions. Do you think the current financial model for classical music is sustainable? I’m fundamentally an optimist. There will always be a place for classical music. It’s not a dying art form. Some old business models will have to be let go. We’re trying a lot of different things. Some are working out; some are not.

There are actually more people listening to classical music now than ever, but the cultural landscape has changed so drastically. People are able to have their entertainment delivered to them in so many ways. With the myriad of instant-access, immediate-gratification, low-cost entertainment options, the challenge is differentiating what we do and making sure people are aware that what we’re doing can be meaningful to them.


Alan Gilbert leads master classes at the Music Academy of the West on Thursday, July 24, and Friday, July 25. He’ll conduct at the Lobero Theatre on Saturday, July 26, at 8 p.m. For more on the Music Academy, as well as tickets and information about performances and classes, call (805) 969-8787 or visit


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