Kurt Masur did new music, Lorin Maazel did some new music, but you’ve been stamped as being an advocate from nearly the beginning. To what do we attribute this? Is it just that you were visibly enthusiastic and consistently offering up projects like Le Grand Macabre and Gruppen, initiatives like Contact! and the Biennial?
I wouldn’t step back from any credit I’ve gotten for doing all these things, and there have been a lot of initiatives that have focused on and capitalized on new music. I think 21st-century audiences can get a lot from dealing with 21st-century music, not to mention 20th-century music. I mean, I always say I’ve not been trying to get the New York Philharmonic to the 21st century; I’ve been trying to bring them into the 20th century. [laughs] I actually think that there’s more than people realize to be gained from appreciating Ligeti. That’s not exactly new music, but it passes for new music.
I think the musicians also appreciate the challenge of accessing different capabilities and capacities. I really think that orchestras, and musicians, generally, need to stand behind support of what is happening in composition today. So I’m extremely proud of the Biennial. I’m on record many times having said that I’m not a believer in all-contemporary concerts, and that having been said, the Biennial is an achievement I’m really proud of. I think it’s fantastic and appropriate that the New York Philharmonic is the host organization for this event that has brought together music organizations from around the country and different constituents and organizations and institutions from around the city – this never used to happen.
So there’s the contemporary-music dimension to these things, but there’s always more resonance, or at least I try to have more resonance. And one of the things I really wanted the Biennial to achieve was a sense of cooperation, which never used to exist. There was very much this kind of ivory tower attitude: Not only did the New York Philharmonic not care what other institutions around the city were doing, they didn’t care what other people thought of the New York Philharmonic. And I think we can’t forget whom we are serving: It’s the city of New York.
The New York Philharmonic happens to have an international reach, so as the world gets smaller – although people are fighting against it tooth and nail these days – we have our partnerships at the Barbican and Music Academy of the West and Shanghai and stuff… it’s all not that far, really. The world is smaller. And the New York Philharmonic does have the clout to make these connections, and that is very much now in the DNA, and I think I’ve had something to do with creating that new attitude.
But certainly within the city, it’s not an accident that I decided to teach at Juilliard as opposed to Curtis, because it’s here in New York. I think it’s exciting to have a connection at the Metropolitan Museum. I’ve tried to create collaborative projects with the Metropolitan Opera; they didn’t go anywhere. I had the idea to give the New York Philharmonic the chance to play in the pit at the Met; perhaps we could rehearse a project that they wouldn’t be able to fit into their schedule, and give the Met Orchestra the chance to play symphonic concerts here. You know, do a swap. And there was some interest in that for a while, but for understandable reasons – logistically, it’s hard to arrange; they play so many performances a week, and they’re on a kind of treadmill that they can’t get off of… I actually think that would be good for both orchestras, and really exciting for the city to see this kind of collaboration.
I reached out to all my peer orchestras when I started about creating a kind of connection and synergy of programming when they came to New York. There were a couple of sort of nibbles of interest – I get along really well with [Boston Symphony Orchestra music director] Andris Nelsons and with [Philadelphia Orchestra music director] Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and we had some initial discussions that were interesting: What if two or three great orchestras collaborated on a two-week festival in New York that involved programming at Lincoln Center and at Carnegie Hall? How exciting would that be? And nothing has happened. What can I say? I had the idea, I did my best, and it remains to my successor to either do or not. But when the whole phenomenon of professional music organizations is so embattled, wouldn’t it be nice to show a united front, say that we’re not trying to kill each other but we’re trying to support music in general? I’m surprised that there’s less interest in this, generally.
At heart, this idea of inclusion and bringing disparate elements together kind of is the running thread, also, through the programming. It’s not a separate subject, and that’s why I’m trying to talk about all the different potential benefits, the less obvious layers of benefit, that can come from having a varied approach to programming. I beg indulgence as an outgoing music director to be able to talk about my philosophy this way, but it is a kind of core philosophy.
Contact! has been a major initiative of your tenure, and it’s also been in the news not long ago for having nearly ended and then being saved in an unorthodox manner. You clearly felt strongly enough about the series to spare it from the chopping block at personal expense, yet coverage of its salvation suggested the series had never been cost-effective in terms of expenditure per patron. What’s the value, to you, of the series?
I think Contact! has been, for the people who participated in it, really exciting, and really important. And that group includes the musicians, the composers, the people who’ve planned it, and the audience. Do I wish more people came to Contact! concerts? Yeah, of course. And I think there hasn’t been a complete institutional alignment within the New York Philharmonic about what we were trying to achieve with Contact! and marketing is not a science. I have the sense that we could have presented it with more obvious belief, or more support, or more pizazz; I have the feeling there was something a little bit underplayed about the way we’ve presented it, as if we’re hedging our bets on it. And if something costs a certain amount of money, maybe you don’t want to devote too much of that to marketing.
I kind of wish that we had given it a little bit more prominence; I have the sense, without being able to prove it, obviously, that we could have created more excitement. Let’s put it this way: There are dedicated contemporary-music ensembles, but there is no contemporary ensemble that is able to play this music with as much mastery, flair, and understanding as the New York Philharmonic. I think the New York Philharmonic is the best contemporary-music ensemble I know, despite the fact that they’re not specialists. And that is also not unrelated to my not thinking of myself as a specialist: I’m not saying that I’m the best, but I’m saying it’s possible to do it, even if you’re not a specialist.
What I like about the way the New York Philharmonic plays contemporary music is that it’s pretty damn perfect, but they bring a kind of human dimension to the music that I think is often lacking in specialist contemporary-music ensemble performances – and I’m actually including all the famous ones in that. The musicians are not unanimously or equally enthusiastic across the board about playing this music, but generally it’s been a self-selecting group, and the people who have participated in Contact! have been deeply committed to it. And I think it’s an important outlet for them to be able to do it.
I do think that there’s an audience; I mean, it’s New York City, for god’s sake. There are millions of people here. There have got to be more than 500 people who are interested in this music. If they somehow don’t believe that the New York Philharmonic can do this stuff – I think that might be part of it, because I think the image of the New York Philharmonic is this venerable, iconic classical-music institution. Why would they be playing in some alternative venue? How could they be better than whatever Brooklyn group? It’s possible that that’s part of what’s going on. But I think that it’s great that we’re now collaborating with National Sawdust and places that have street cred, because I think that chips away at this untouchable veneer that the orchestra unfortunately still has. There is no reason why we can’t play a kick-ass Bruckner symphony and a totally on-the-money performance of Andy Akiho’s music – and in fact, we do it.
There is no reason why we can’t play a kick-ass Bruckner symphony and a totally on-the-money performance of Andy Akiho’s music – and in fact, we do it.
Inasmuch as it’s possible to talk about your future plans, to what extent do you anticipate modern music being a part of your agenda going forward?
Well, I’ve received some offers to take positions in other places, and I’m not in a hurry to say yes to any. Let’s put it this way: There are a few areas that I’m excited about. One is not working so hard on administration. [laughs] Another is opera. And another is exploring this new paradigm of what an orchestra can be in the 21st century, and what an orchestra appropriately should be. So if I were ever to take on another orchestra – and there is one situation that is of interest to me that I am mulling over right now – it would be based on finding a situation in which the whole organization, from top to bottom, was interested in both preserving the beautiful traditions of symphonic music and the traditional format of the concert, but combining it – not in a way that shunted it off to the side, but in a meaningful way – with a new way of interacting with the audience, and with a new, explicit role as an agent of cultural diplomacy.
I suppose that when you’ve led the New York Philharmonic, how many places can you go that won’t feel like a step down?
In many real ways, anything else is a step down after the New York Philharmonic – which is also liberating, because I’m not trying to prove anything. Immediately when they announced I was leaving, you started reading speculation: “Why is he leaving? Is there nothing to go to? What is he going to?” And that is not the way I think at all. I’m not leaving to go someplace else. And it’s not one of those things: “I’m going to spend time with my family” and “I’m going to write my book.” It’s incredible how people assume things about this kind of career move, which is never how I’ve thought.
I’m very much on the case of this U.N. project; that’s definitely going to be a big component in my life over the next years. [Editor’s note: On December 14, 2016, Gilbert announced plans to collaborate with the United Nations in forming an international orchestra to promote cultural diplomacy.] And contemporary music… I’m sure I will continue to do it. For me, contemporary music is often a good way to make connections within a city. That’s certainly a function that Contact! has served, and the Biennial.
I will look with interest at the process of remodeling the hall here – from afar, but with great interest, because I think that having the appropriate physical space in which to operate…it’s not a substitute for content, but it can definitely help with the delivery, and also the way the world at large sees an institution. The Sydney Opera House, for example, is an iconic building; somehow they haven’t quite come into their own as a symbol of the city, but that’s what people think of in Sydney. I just had a talk with [New York Times contributor] Corinna [da Fonseca-Wollheim] about the Elbphilharmonie [concert hall], because that has the potential to be that same kind of architectural icon for the city of Hamburg, and I think it will also potentially change the nature of the orchestra itself. They’ve changed their name, the NDR Hamburg; now they’re the Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, which seems a little bit weird, but if you think about it, the Concertgebouw [Orchestra] is also named after its building.
We’ll see what happens. As a destination for visiting orchestras and visiting artists, Hamburg is more important now because of that hall, so I think there will be a kind of shift there. That’s another very interesting situation to look at, and potentially will give lessons for New York if they see what’s going to happen there.
I have nice relationships with La Scala, where I just did Porgy and Bess, and the Semperoper in Dresden. They’ve asked me to do a number of projects over the years, and we’ll see what happens. The Stockholm Opera is also trying to figure out what they are going to be doing over the next few years; I’ve only conducted there once, but for me it has the interesting advantage of being in Stockholm, where my wife still has her job as a cellist in the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and we still have our house outside of the city. So without completely tipping my hand, these are areas that are of interest.
The New York Philharmonic presents Contact! at National Sawdust on January 23; www.nationalsawdust.org. Alan Gilbert conducts the Juilliard Orchestra in music by Shostakovich and Dutilleux at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, on January 24; www.julliard.edu.