Surprisingly good news for all those who still harbor hopes of major orchestras as dynamic, living institutions: the New York Philharmonic has just announced that Alan Gilbert will be its new music director, beginning 2009.

Alex Ross has more.

By Evan

13 thoughts on “Live from New York”
  1. The only thing I want to add is that it seems to me that there are some very creative hybrids resulting from people in the world of orchestras (be they on the local commuity orchestra level or a part of an entity like Lincoln Center) making an effort to address some of the points you bring up i.e. the importance of cultivating a 21st century repertoire for the orchestra and the need for an audience that will help support it.

    Maybe the current crop of contemporary writing for opera (with a healthy embrace of other mediums such as video and dance) and the general health of the live concert music world (especially rock festivals) will be a part of the future of the orchestra and how it presents music in the 21st century?

  2. Don’t we want the orchestra around so that composers can continue to develop and expand its possibility as a medium for expression?

    Sure, the same way that the theramin and clavichord are still around. But I’m not seeing any of these things, including the orchestra, as a growth industry.

    If I’m proven wrong in the next few decades, that would be great. But at least in the US, audiences are not flocking to the orchestras in general. It just doesn’t strike me as a thriving, and growing, medium. There will always be people who go to it, and certainly I listen to a lot of orchestral music. But I’m talking about music that was written a bit ago—perhaps some Adams from a few years ago. I’m not seeing much of anything being written for orchestras these days that are really compelling, certainly not enough to make me and many others spend a lot of money for a live concert. Smaller ensembles are more intimate. The principles of economics are also against orchestras. They generally do not have the time or money to devote much effort to new music, whereas this is more likely to occur with smaller groups. And even then, it’s a challenge, as all of us know.

  3. I don’t know a single composer who doesn’t enjoy hearing an orchestra and – if they haven’t already – wouldn’t mind trying to compose for one.

    Don’t we want the orchestra around so that composers can continue to develop and expand its possibility as a medium for expression?

  4. I could care less if the orchestra as a medium lives or dies. I have zero interest in writing for it, and I can count on one hand the number of truly compelling symphonic works in the past decade. And if it somehow thrives, then more power to it. But I take issue with the symphony orchestra as the arbiter of what counts as important in the world of music. It’s as if one has no credibility as a composer unless one writes symphonies, and even better, a lot of them. Even Glass has bought into this nonsense. It’s what’s behind the traditional paradigm of “great prodigy studies at noted conservatory; promising graduate manages to get an academic position; the great up and coming composer writes a bunch of symphonies that win prizes and permit the composer to have his or her music performed by a major symphony; the great old man/woman is feted by a bunch of major symphony orchestras for his/her “masterpieces.” etc, etc, etc.


    Look, I love a lot of orchestral music. Mahler, Shostakovich, Beethoven, Brahms—they did amazing things with the orchestra, as did Berg, Schoenberg and many others. Feldman’s Coptic Light still boggles my mind. Even a lot of early Adams was incredibly well-scored for the orchestra, and beautiful as well. But my sense is that the really interesting music is being written for ensembles, both traditional and non-traditional. One of the biggest problems with orchestras is the culture—it’s too staid, too formal, and far too conservative. When was the last time one heard the Webern Symphony op 21 in, say, Philadelphia? And this is a work that was written many, many decades ago. Same with a lot of the orchestral music of Ives. Or Scelsi (especially Scelsi). Yeah, there’s a smattering of newer music here and there, and certainly there are indeed orchestras that are progressive—there are exceptions to every rule. But overall, the orchestra has been a relic, and has been this way for years. It’s no longer relevant to the younger generation, to minorities, and other important constituencies. There’s nothing necessarily bad about this, but the fact that so much importance still gets attached to writing for this outdated, expensive, and non-versatile medium strikes me as rather weird.

    Guess I’m being pretty offensive and opinionated, but isn’t that what blogs and forums are for? 😎

  5. Crap, sorry, I didn’t realize that was so lengthy, due to a lack of a preview button. Yes, I know, I need to get my own blog, I’m working on it.

  6. The orchestra is a dying reptile (like a dinosaur), and unless it evolves, it’s gone.

    Oh please. Apart from your poor analogy–last I looked, there were no dinos frolicking on the Great Plains because, you know, they’re extinct–that idea is not supported by any concrete data. Look at any study not hyped by Greg Sandow or Terry Teachout and orchestra attendance in America is steady or increasing in certain markets, largely dependent on the talents and charisma of the principle conductor and their repertory choices, the periodic orchestra failure notwithstanding; look at Alex Ross’ recent series on his 3 orchestras in 2 days trip for a corrective. Musical life does exist beyond the (212) area code and new music ensembles are not a reliable indicator.

    So, tell me, what’s it supposed to evolve in to? Doing hip-hop symphonies? Orchestral Raves? What? The basic set up will never, ever change (for full symphonies; small ensembles are another thing altogether): musicians sit and play mostly 18th century-early 20th century rep, with some stuff after ca. 1920 in the mix, in purpose-built concert halls as the audience listens quietly and without making a commotion. And that’s OK! All the other “OMG! OMG! The orchestra is in tuxes! 19-year old skater dudes won’t be able to relate! WE’RE DOOMED!” stuff is based on what I believe is a false premise: people will come to the symphony if it’s just presented better. Um, no.

    I recently did a “Take a friend to the symphony” (Los Angeles Philharmonic under L. Slatkin playing Reich, Liszt and Holst). His bottom line, one that I believe is pretty universal: it takes too much effort to appreciate the music, which doesn’t have lyrics generally and conventional pop song structures to grab on to. There’s simply nothing to be done about the fact that you have to devote a good chunk of time and energy to connect with the standard rep, let alone with Birtwistle or the latest Downtown buzz generator.

    In many ways, it already is in terms of relevance

    So? Big deal. It would be impossible for me to care less if orchestras are on the pop culture radar or whether they “engage in the communities they supposedly represent”. The sentence I excerpted is a common plaint of these kinds of blogs. Those things have nothing, not a thing, to do with their intrinsic worth. I’m bored to tears with the idea that orchestra’s have to be all things to all people; they’ve almost *always* been a niche, self-selecting thing and that’s OK; see also: ballet, free jazz, prog rock, modern art and dozens of other art forms. When I start seeing the words “elitist” and “not connecting to the wider community” applied to people like Cecil Taylor in every review, then I’ll take that complaint seriously.

    Judd, thanks for the link to your piece. I’m compelled to note that as someone who has had the grave misfortune to choose to live outside of the NYC area (/sarcasm) that you engage in an infuriating double-standard in your second ‘graf.

    You write “More importantly, what kind of hierarchy is Mr. Tommasini suggesting, in which a great Beethoven cycle is a “lofty expectation”, but such goals as audience building and “thinking outside the box” are treated as trivialities?” and then, not two sentences later impose a hierarchy of your own: “I hope they hired him to kick some ass and restore it to its rightful place of prominence in American music”. “Rightful place”? WTF?

    I’ve long suspected that New Yorkers, no matter if they live on the Upper West Side or in Bayside, have no idea about how infuriating their overweening sense of entitlement about all things New York really is (I’m a huge sports fan, so I know this attitude well from the Yankees: “It’s not *really* a World Series if the Bronx Bombers aren’t in it”). The New York Philharmonic’s “rightful place” is determined not by geography but how well it plays whatever rep it chooses, full stop.

    I wish Mr. Gilbert well, but I think all of the “More New Music now!” people will be in for a shock when the backlash from the NYP’s very conservative audience base comes, as I’m sure it will. Pierre Boulez, the Great Bogeyman of S21, could tell a tale or two about that.

  7. The appointment is definitely good news. If all it means, though, is that the orchestra has a festival here and a new commission there, that will be a huge disappointment – and I’m quite prepared to be disappointed. In a city that already has tons of new music going on, I’m not really that excited by the prospect of another festival. And sure, it would be fine to have a few more new orchestra works come down the pipe, but that seems like a marginal change from the status quo. Maybe, Andrew, that’s why people are less than buzzed about the appointment – because the Philharmonic has abdicated its responsibility as a leadership organization in New York’s music scene, and the changes that will result from this are, in all likelihood, marginal.

    What’s needed is a real reconception of the orchestra’s role in the city. If Gilbert is prepared to take on this task, then I am prepared to get excited about the organization again. Certainly, part of what’s great about his appointment is that he is actually from the city, and unlike many other candidates, might actually move the orchestra in a genuinely new direction, if not immediately, then down the line, once he gains more clout in the organizational structure and hierarchy. But it’s only really exciting if he starts thinking way beyond festivals and commissions, and gets his hands a little (or very) dirty.

    I have some thoughts about an alternative model for the orchestra, which I wrote somewhat quickly on my website, but I’m really just scratching the surface of the surface in thinking about the role that an organization like the Philharmonic can and should have in this city. It would be wonderful to see someone with serious juice put forward such a vision….

  8. I didn’t comment because I had already exceeded my quota —

    Seriously, I had been tempted to answer Evan that I thought it wrong for him to think that the NY Phil would try to make “Gilbert behave as a younger version of Maazel” — and to counter his pessimism that there would never again be contemporary orchestral music festivals (such as the 1976 joint ‘First Annual’ NY Phil – Juilliard Celebration of Contempoary Music, the NY Phil New Romanticism Festivals (early 1980s) , the SF Wet Ink Festivals of the 1990s, or the current LA Phil Festivals). I was glad to see that Steve Smith both commented here and blogged about this issue.

    I think that March 2010, March 2011, and March 2012, would be good times to hold the Second, Third, and Fourth Annual Joint New York Philharmonic/Juilliard School Festivals of Contemporary Music.
    What do others think?

    PS. Unlike David, I have absolutely no problem with Alan Gilbert’s mother being a member of the orchestra. (Now, if it had been Loren Maazel’s son or daughter, Zarin Mehta son or daughter, or Sandy Weill’s son or daughter …)

  9. I didn’t comment because I’m swamped at work! But to make you happy, Andrea…

    I think it’s a good thing. I did find it to be a tad incestuous, in that his parents have relationships at the orchestra (his father used to be a performer there, and his mother still is), but big deal. I’m just delighted they went with an American. Not to sound jingoistic, since I’m not (you can’t imagine all the abuse I’ve gotten at for supporting universal health care like they have in Europe and Canada—want to piss off a physician, just say “universal health care” and see how quickly they call you a liberal socialist wacko). But it’s ridiculous that with so many young talented conductors who are already here, the orchestras tend to go with old fart European men. So regardless, it’s a good thing that Alan Gilbert was chosen. I’d love to see more of this sort of thing happen. The orchestra is a dying reptile (like a dinosaur), and unless it evolves, it’s gone. In many ways, it already is in terms of relevance.

  10. The news of Gilbert’s appointment is now almost 48 hours old, and yet no one seems interested in commenting on this particular appointment.

    I thought that there might be a good deal of discussion here, and yet there is virtually none.

    I find this to be very interesting.

  11. Evan, we may be pleasantly surprised. I blogged about the press conference today, and the specific topic of new-music festivals was indeed raised — and specifically, by Zarin Mehta as a prompt to get Gilbert talking about it.

  12. Thanks for the photo, Jerry.

    I hope that the powers that be at the NYP will not try too hard, or at any rate will not be successful, or have shown by this hire that perhaps they are not too invested in the attempt, to try to make Gilbert behave as a younger version of Maazel. Here’s hoping for more incisiveness and less soup, in both performance and (far more importantly) repertoire choices.

    I rather doubt that Gilbert will be allowed to continue his new-music-festival-founding tendencies to any degree that will have a lasting effect, but I am not enough of a cynic not to wait to be proven right.

  13. Encouraging news, indeed, to wake up and find that a local boy (Gilbert’s father is retired from the Philharmonic and his mother is still playing violin there) has finally made good. Gilbert likes new music and started an annual two-week new music festival in Stockholm. I suspect the fact that Los Angeles gobbled up the 26-year-old Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel paved the way for the hidebound Philharmonic to finally reach out to someone who isn’t eligible for Medicare.

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