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Friday, February 6, 2015

Big Changes for Big Orchestra

Alan Gilbert to step down from the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Alan Gilbert will step down as music director of the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2014 The New York Philharmonic. 
The New York Philharmonic sent an earthquake through the world of classical music today when it announced that Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic and the first New York native to occupy that position will step down in the summer of 2017.

Mr. Gilbert (who is currently conducting a run of Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera) will vacate the podium after the 2017 season, at the end of his eighth year as music director. His term has been marked by innovation and change, with the Philharmonic staging successful operas (Le Grand Macabre, The Cunning Little Vixen), and the CONTACT! series devoted entirely to modern works in an intimate setting.

He also leaves the orchestra at a crucial moment in its long history. A planned renovation of Avery Fisher Hall in the works for 2019, which will necessitate the orchestra finding a new place to play for at least a year. Vacancies exist in the ensemble, caused by the retirement of older players. Finally the Philharmonic just had a change at the head of its board of directors, a transition that can rock even the most traditional orchestra.

In a statement, Mr. Gilbert said: "I am  extremely gratified by the response that both the Orchestra and our audiences have had to even my most ambitious ideas. I think we have succeeded in showing that a large musical institution can successfully take risks and break new ground.  After eight years in such an all-consuming job, the time will be right to hand off the responsibility for taking the New York Philharmonic through its next great chapter leading to the reopening of the hall."

Mr. Gilbert's innovations have drawn critical respect, but have been a harder sell to the core subscription base of the Philharmonic. Works like Magnus Lindberg's Kraft and three week festival featuring the works of Gyorgi Ligeti have put off audiences expecting a steady diet of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner. But the programming intiatives undertaken by the current management team have also drawn younger listeners as the orchestra looks to its next generation of subscribers.

He has also had the occasional stormy moment with the orchestra's audience, most notably when a persistently ringing cell phone interrupted a performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony in 2012. Mr. Gilbert stopped the orchestra and confronted the person in question, an incident which has been documented elsewhere and caused an international sensation on a slow news day.

There are no announcements yet regarding Mr. Gilbert's replacement, but it is fun to speculate. And here we will do just that. Will the Philharmonic choose a traditional American or European maestro in the mold of Kurt Masur or Lorin Maazel? Will it be a young firebrand to whip the orchestra into shape? Or a composer-conductor in the Leonard Bernstein-Pierre Boulez mold?

Names that come to mind immediately include Jaap von Zweden, the Dutch conductor currently in Dallas who is popular with the players, Daniel Harding, an Englishman whose earth-shaking Mahler Tenth was the orchestra's first performance of that symphony, and David Robertson, an American whose commitment to new music rivals Mr. Gilbert's. This is pure speculation of course, but it's going to be interesting.

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