My client Alan Gilbert was feeling great last week when I saw him at his apartment. His new recipe for the kind of Bronx-style marinara I grew up with was a success, he was enjoying the bottle of wine I had brought over, and he was basking in the glow of a triumph at Avery Fisher Hall, where the New York Philharmonic had just finished a run of sold-out performances of a notoriously unusual but enormously entertaining contemporary opera by Hungarian composer György Ligeti. With plenty of electronic gadgets in our vicinity, I picked up a laptop and begin to type his responses. Our conversation follows below.
Q: Hard to believe your first season as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic is almost over! It must feel really great to have one of the biggest projects of the season do so well -- three sold out performances of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre. That must feel really great to think about as you get ready for the last few programs of the season!
AG: Honestly, I can't say I'm surprised. I said from the beginning that the Ligeti opera would light a fire in NYC. But the fact that it turned out as I expected -- and to a greater degree -- is certainly gratifying. I loved that the audience truly got it. It was a sophisticated, engaged group of New Yorkers who understood the evening for what it was -- a total theatrical experience. And I must say, when the already cheering audience went crazy because I had the orchestra stand up and take a bow that was the ultimate vindication!
Q: How has this success impacted everyone at the New York Philharmonic?
AG: Everyone is truly jazzed. The institution mobilized itself in a way that I had never experienced, and there was an intense sense of collective pride in what we accomplished. It was truly a team effort and it showed that the NY Phil can do whatever it sets its mind and ambition to.
Q: What do you think will be the lasting result of this Ligeti success?
AG: The story that needs to be told is that the New York Philharmonic can play any kind of music brilliantly. There have been those who have wanted to create a separate category for Ligeti and other contemporary composers. That's not really the way it is. The Philharmonic plays all the music it performs with equal commitment and equal command, and there's no artificial line that separates one style of music from another. This is true for the audience as well, I'm sure. There's no reason that an audience that appreciates Ligeti can't appreciate Brahms. Furthermore, it's no longer possible to say that there's not an audience for this kind of event.
Q: It seems like you have to please a lot of different kinds of people with your programming and performances -- long-time subscribers, board members, first-time concert-goers, young audiences, etc. Is it difficult to please all these different constituents at once?
AG: A huge range of our audience has told me that they appreciate the music we've programmed this season. Honestly, I have no agenda. We play music that I truly believe in and think is wonderful to listen to, and that will reach our audience in a very direct way. I'm a traditionalist. I think that going to a concert is one of the most exciting experiences that anyone can have. And the fact that my tastes range from soup to nuts, and the fact that I really believe in the power of a live concert, means that we're going to tend to come up with programs that appeal to virtually all of our listening public. Sometimes we deliberately put something in a program that spices it up, but most of the time people just tell me that they feel the entire season has been enjoyable. My hope is that by playing music that has affected me that's there's going to be a similar response in our audience. I love music and I love many different kinds of music. And I hope that this belief and passion transmits to the audience.
Q: Do you think your diverse musical tastes have something to do with coming form and living in a bustling, multi-cultural city like New York?
AG: I think that New York is the true melting pot. You can't put your finger on that one attribute that defines a New Yorker. And similarly about the New York Philharmonic. And, dare I say it, me! What we try to do is embrace the world and to be as good as we can be in every dimension of our endeavor.
Q: With so many world-class orchestras passing through town each week, do you sometimes feel that Philharmonic can be taken for granted?
AG: I feel that not enough recognition has been given to the fact that the New York Philharmonic presents concerts every week in the year and is judged at the same standard that any visiting orchestra is judged. That's as it should be. But think about it: most orchestras prepare their best pieces until they are finally at the level at which they would be comfortable playing them in NYC -- and they bring their "A" game. There's no other option for the New Philharmonic. They normally have four rehearsals to prepare programs that no other orchestra would dare to show to New York. The Philharmonic wouldn't ask to be cut a break, but the fact is that there's no other orchestra that could sustain this grueling schedule, and the scrutiny of the New York scene, and still play week after week at this level.
Q: What was the idea of programming the Ligeti project so late in the season?
AG: It's a project that required a build up and couldn't have come earlier in the season.
Q: You still have a few more programs to do this season.
AG: I'm really excited to be doing Beethoven's Missa Solemnis on the very last program. I have a very different take on it from the last time I did it, and I'm thrilled and refreshed to be studying this awesome score again. It can be a very intimidating work, but right now it is speaking to me in a fresh, new way. Beethoven wrote it at the time of his Ninth Symphony, but, despite its enormous scale, it's a much more introverted work -- deeply devotional and incredibly personal.
Q: I've listened to Missa Solemnis a number of times and while I'm always swept up by it I can't say that I really "know" it. Can you offer any specific pointers as to what listeners should focus in on?
AG: There are many, but I'll name just one: the extended violin solo during the "Benedictus." It's incredible how it continues to unfold in this unending, magical line. It spins on and on and is a rare and very unusual moment for the concertmaster.
Q: Looking ahead, are there some programs in your second season that you're already looking forward to doing?
AG: Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen, which we'll stage late in the season, is so gorgeous for the orchestra -- it's highly symbolic but so true to the human condition. Manny Ax is playing Messiaen's Colors of the Celestial City and that will be an incredible experience. And we'll be doing more Mahler Symphonies.
Q: And Magnus Lindberg is back.
Yes. It's been a total home run having Magnus as our composer in residence. He's written great, wonderful music for us. He's loved by the musicians and says he's really been affected by what the orchestra is doing with his music, so it's really a two-way collaboration!
Q: During a few interviews you've told people that one of the big surprises for you this season is that despite the stresses that come along with the job that you're actually enjoying yourself immensely. Have there been other big surprises?
AG: Nothing in particular comes to mind, though the fact that people have thought of the first season as a big success is something that makes me truly proud and excited. I hope that the new season will go as well! The best thing is that there's a renewed energy and joy that I feel in the music-making of the New York Philharmonic and, after all, that's what it's all about.
Q: By the way, who gave you that marinara recipe? Even my mother, who has made quite a few pots of gravy in her lifetime, would have been impressed.
AG: I'll keep my source a secret at the moment, but I'm glad an Italian guy from the Bronx like you approves!