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Alan Gilbert: 'Energetic, Animated and Enthusiastic'

Posted October 17, 2013

Alan Gilbert 

Today's Wall Street Journal has an interview with Music Director Alan Gilbert by Ralph Gardner Jr., who sought Gilbert's expert opinions about Beethoven's Ninth and what makes some art and artists truly great. Here is an excerpt:

The maestro is such an energetic, animated and enthusiastic presence that once he got going, it was simply a pleasure to sit back, listen and learn. ...

“[One] thing we’ve been talking about backstage is the comfort [Beethoven's Ninth] can bring in chaotic times,” Mr. Gilbert said, mentioning the New York City Opera filing for bankruptcy and the federal government’s shutdown. “The Ninth is a stabilizing presence. There’s been a very strong sense of community in the room. It’s been very moving. Orchestra members tell me how many members of the audience end up in tears by the last movement.” ...

“What Beethoven was trying to do was so different than anything that had gone before it,” Mr. Gilbert explained. “I’d argue anything that followed since. He was trying to say something universal about humanity. In fact, there is an ambition to express something that hadn’t been expressed in symphonic music before.

“What Beethoven did was set the bar,” he added. The composer is the reason “that Mahler in his symphonies tried to say everything there is to say about life. Brahms couldn’t write symphonies for a long time because of the footsteps he heard behind him. This was literally history-changing music.” ...

“I’ve done the Ninth a number of times,” he went on. “I got a new score. It didn’t have any of my previous markings to trigger associations or thoughts. I don’t know if I changed, but I found a new relationship with the piece this time around.” ...

Mr. Gilbert, 46 years old, grew up in Manhattan. He attended the Fieldston School before heading to Harvard. In high school, he briefly considered becoming a doctor: “A friend who was a surgeon let me observe operations at Roosevelt Hospital.”

“I kept circling back to music,” he added. “It wasn’t really a choice. It chose me.”

His parents also might have had something to do with it. His mother, Yoko Takebe, is a violinist with the Philharmonic. His father, Michael Gilbert, also a violinist, retired from the orchestra in 2001. I wondered what it’s like to occupy a stage with one’s mother, and whether she critiques his performances.

“It’s more like we share in the experience,” he explained. “She’s playing well. It’s going well for me. We’re both able to have a good time.”

 (Photo: Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal)