In 2009, the year Alan Gilbert took over as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, Alex Ross wrote in the New Yorker: “Simply put, the orchestra is playing better than it has in the seventeen years that I've been a critic in New York.” The intervening years have seen Gilbert go from strength to strength, with critics and audiences alike responding with generous enthusiasm to the superb quality of the performances and to the new initiatives that transformed the orchestra into “a force of permanent revolution” (New York magazine). As the New Yorker summed up his tenure, “Alan Gilbert has made an indelible mark on the orchestra’s history and that of the city itself.” This spring and summer the Music Director makes his last bows in the post, and his final subscription concerts emphasize some of his signature initiatives, as well as works that are particularly meaningful for him. Included are a pairing this week ofSchoenberg’s Holocaust-themed A Survivor from Warsaw and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (May 3-9); a performance highlighting the collaborative programs Gilbert has pioneered, with New York premieres from Kravis Emerging Composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir and The Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence Esa-Pekka Salonen, as well as a performance by Artist-in-Residence Leonidas Kavakos (May 19-23); Wagner’s Das Rheingold in an enhanced concert production (June 1-6); and Alan Gilbert Season Finale: A Concert for Unity, celebrating the power of music to build bridges and unite people across borders (June 8-10). Gilbert will also conduct Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, with soprano Ying Fang, in the Annual Free Memorial Day Concert in Manhattan’s Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine.
In his first program of the spring, taking place this week after last week's Holocaust Remembrance Day, Gilbert juxtaposes Schoenberg’s depiction of the horror of the Holocaust with the message of hope and brotherhood in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.A Survivor from Warsaw, which ends with a men’s choir singing the Jewish prayer “Sh’ma Yisroel,” features stage and screen actor Gabriel Ebert, in his Philharmonic debut, as narrator. Soloists for the Beethoven are soprano Camilla Tilling; mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack and tenor Joseph Kaiser in their Philharmonic debuts; and bass-baritone Eric Owens, who was the Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence during the orchestra’s 2015-16 season. Both works also feature the Westminster Symphonic Choir, directed by Joe Miller.
As Gilbert says: “The message of Beethoven’s Ninth is eternal: it speaks of freedom and the power of the human spirit. Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw is an incredibly powerful piece that shares a very similar DNA to the Beethoven. They couldn’t be more different in terms of musical language, but the fact that they are about the triumph of faith and the indomitable nature of the human spirit makes them a perfect pairing that I’ve always wanted to do.”
One of the hallmarks of Gilbert’s directorship has been his infectious passion for new music. He pioneered CONTACT!, the new-music series, and the NY PHIL BIENNIAL, the citywide exploration of today’s sounds, which together have unveiled 92 world premieres and will continue beyond his tenure. Just as conspicuous has been his passion for collaboration, as demonstrated by the Composer-in-Residence and Artist-in-Residence positions that have been established on his watch. His second set of concerts this spring includes New York premieres of pieces by two current collaborators:Aeriality by Kravis Emerging Composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and Wing on Wing by Composer-in-Residence Esa-Pekka Salonen, featuring Finnish sopranos (and sisters) Anu and Piia Komsi. On the same program, Artist-in-Residence Leonidas Kavakos will play the Brahms Violin Concerto.
Operas have been another highlight of Gilbert’s time at the New York Philharmonic. His reimagined staged productions, including Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake, and Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen, have earned him an unprecedented stream of accolades. Gilbert also won a Grammy Award for the DVD of his 2008 Metropolitan Opera debut, conducting John Adams’s Doctor Atomic. This spring, this facet of his work is represented by an enhanced concert production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, with a cast of luminaries that includes “towering” (New York Times) bass-baritone Eric Owens as Wotan, a role that he debuted earlier this season at Lyric Opera of Chicago; and the 2017 Beverly Sills Artist Award-winner, mezzo-sopranoJamie Barton, as Fricka.
Gilbert also has a special affinity for the music of Gustav Mahler, and has been celebrated for performances of the former Philharmonic Music Director’s symphonies in New York and around the world. This year’s Annual Free Memorial Day Concert at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine will feature Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (with soprano Ying Fang), which was also on the program for the orchestra’s just-completed EUROPE / SPRING 2017 tour. And for the season finale, marking the final subscription concerts of his tenure, the conductor has chosen Mahler’s Seventh Symphony as the centerpiece. Reporting recently for Musical America, Sedgwick Clark noted: “Alan Gilbert is in the final weeks of his eight-¬year tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic. He leaves the orchestra in excellent shape, capable of performing a wide variety of repertoire for any guest conductor. I caught a concert (March 4) that featured two works played on the orchestra’s recent European tour: Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, both pieces that revealed the Phil at its best. …one of the finest Fourths I’ve ever heard.”
The season finale program was conceived by Gilbert in coordination with the New York Philharmonic, following conversations with the former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations. The concert will launch a new initiative to be led by the conductor, following his tenure as Philharmonic Music Director, in which musicians from around the world will come together to perform music at critical times in support of peace, development, and human rights. In the season finale concerts, Gilbert will lead the New York Philharmonic and be joined by musicians from orchestras around the world, as theycelebrate the power of music to build bridges and unite people across borders. Those invited to participate include members of orchestras from Australia, Brazil, China, Cuba, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, Venezuela, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Special guest artists will include cellist Yo-Yo Ma, on June 8, and trumpet playerWynton Marsalis, on June 9. Ma’s Silkroad organization was founded to promote cross-cultural performance and collaborations, and Marsalis – who won the Pulitzer Prize in music for his oratorio Blood on the Fields – is a cultural ambassador for the U.S. in the State Department’s CultureConnect program. Both guest artists have also been active as United Nations Messengers of Peace.
Gilbert comments: “Music has a unique capacity to connect people’s hearts and souls. How can we, as musicians, do our small part to be a positive forum, to help effect social change and respond to adversity in a world faced with unprecedented challenges? With the inspiration of people such as my good friends Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, and Jan Eliasson, former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, I wanted these final concerts to call attention to the ways in which music can unite people across borders and spread a message of harmony and shared humanity. The New York Philharmonic, which has always been an international ensemble, has done so much as a global ambassador throughout its history, and I am honored to showcase this message with this great Orchestra in my hometown of New York City.”
These concerts follow a 14-concert EUROPE / SPRING 2017 tour, which Gilbert and the orchestra have just completed. Besides the aforementioned Mahler’s Fourth, which featured soprano Christina Landshamer, the orchestra presented Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann; the European Premiere of Composer-in-Residence Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma; and John Adams’s The Chairman Dances and Absolute Jest, the latter featuring the New York Philharmonic String Quartet. Glowing press accounts followed each stop on the tour. After the performance in Hamburg’s spectacular new Elbphilharmonie, Die Welt praised the conductor and orchestra for representing “virtues of a different America … of a culture of gentleness that are touching and moving,” finally declaring that “Alan Gilbert can perfectly celebrate his art ... and let Mahler's lucid symphony shine. Gilbert conjures Mahler.” The Luxembourg Tageblatt noted that “Alan Gilbert proved to be a serious and reflective interpreter … a master of tone colors and nuances;”Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung said that “Gilbert shaped the transitions and changes of tempo and rhythm extraordinarily dynamically;” and the Westfälischer Anzeigerreported an "exquisite listening experience." Finally, the Westdeutsche Zeitungdeclared that the orchestra played with "technical perfection, rich sonority, great transparence and good balance,” in a “symphonically spectacular" performance.