The New York Philharmonic’s surprise decision to hire Alan Gilbert as its next music director is the talk of the classical-music world, in large part because Gilbert himself is not the talk of the classical-music world. He is chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and recently spent three years as Santa Fe Opera’s music director–both important posts, but not exactly high-profile slots. Though he’s led the Philharmonic in thirty-one concerts since making his debut with the orchestra six years ago, Gilbert is all but unknown to the public at large.
But, then, who isn’t?
The sad fact is that the days of the celebrity conductor are basically over, not because there aren’t interesting conductors out there but because our increasingly popular culture has essentially withdrawn its attention from classical music. According to news accounts, the other conductors who were considered by the Philharmonic to succeed Lorin Maazel were Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti. Both men are well known to regular classical concertgoers, but they have no name recognition whatsoever outside that small world. Moreover, they’re both senior citizens. (Pop quiz: name five indisputably major under-sixty conductors. Hello? Is anybody there?)
Spend a few minutes looking through the news stories about Gilbert’s appointment and you’ll come away knowing four things about him:
• He’s the first native-born New Yorker to be appointed music director of the Philharmonic.
• Both of his parents have played in the orchestra.
• He is (in the words of New York Times critic Tony Tommasini, who has been pushing hard for this appointment) “an unpretentious musician with no whiff of the formidable maestro about him.”
• He’s forty.
All interesting, though none save the last intrinsically encouraging. The New York Philharmonic has the oldest-looking audience of any major performing-arts organization whose performances I’ve attended in recent years. If Gilbert can attract a new generation of listeners, more power to him–but I very much doubt that the mere fact of his age will persuade anyone under thirty to come hear his concerts. The classical-music generation gap goes far deeper than that.
Far more important, I suspect, will be whether Gilbert proves to be an effective communicator–and whether he can find new ways of getting his message out to a new generation of listeners that is largely indifferent to classical music. I can’t imagine, for instance, that he’ll have any luck getting on network TV, or persuading the national newsmagazines to cover his activities. Instead, he’ll have to go a different route. Does he understand how the new media work? Does the management of the Philharmonic understand?
A half-century ago, the New York Philharmonic hired another fortysomething music director, who promptly proceeded to put the orchestra at the center of postwar American culture. But Leonard Bernstein was already famous. By 1958 he had written West Side Story, scored On the Waterfront, made the most highly publicized conducting debut in the history of American classical music, made dozens of well-reviewed major-label recordings, and spent countless hours talking about music on network TV. Alan Gilbert has done none of those things, nor will he have the opportunity to do anything like them.
To be sure, part of the key to Gilbert’s success will lie in the quality of his music-making. About that I can say nothing: I’ve never seen him conduct or heard any of the handful of recordings he’s made to date. Nothing that I’ve read about his Philharmonic appearances has made me feel that I had to go hear him. Yes, his programs look interesting, but I don’t need to go to Avery Fisher Hall to hear interesting orchestral music: all I have to do is go to my CD shelf and pick at random.
Needless to say, I wish Alan Gilbert the best of luck, but for the moment I can’t honestly say that I’ll be more likely to start attending the New York Philharmonic’s concerts when he takes over in 2009. That could change–quickly. Alex Ross, whose taste I trust, calls him “a man with an inquisitive, contemporary mind” who is capable of turning the Philharmonic into “a markedly different, more vibrant organization.” That sounds good to me. If Gilbert and the Philharmonic want to get people like me to go to their concerts, though, they’ll have to transform the experience of classical concertgoing in such a way as to make it more attractive than staying home–or doing something else.
UPDATE: Says Marcus Maroney:
If you think “The New York Philharmonic has the oldest-looking audience of any major performing-arts organization whose performances I’ve attended in recent years,” come on down and go to a Houston Symphony concert….
I’ve also seen a lot of walkers at Paper Mill Playhouse‘s weekend matinees, which presumably is a big part of the reason why they got themselves into such dire financial straits this past season.