New York, and its Philharmonic

The MTA, the New York Knicks and the New York Philharmonic were among the few things New Yorkers weren't proud of a year ago. The subway was (and still is) one of the most inefficient and disorganized of America, the Knicks hadn't made it to the playoffs in quite a while and the Philharmonic didn't possess the prestige it once had.

This last complaint wasn't a simple one -it implied legacy issues. Founded in 1842, the New York Philharmonic is the first orchestra of the United States. Its Music Directors have been legends in the likes of Gustav Mahler, Arturo Toscanini, Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez. This ensemble premiered in America several of the most important pieces written by European composers -Brahms' 4th Symphony, Beethoven's 9th Symphony, and Dvorak’s From the New World Symphony. The most prominent conductors and soloists of the last couple of centuries have played for it in quality of guests. Likewise, the New York Philharmonic holds the world record of concerts made by an orchestra: more than 15,000 performances.

So what were New Yorkers complaining about then? The answer surrounded the name of Alan Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic's current Music Director. However, nothing he had to do with the descent of the orchestra's prestige. In fact, Gilbert recently concluded his first season praised by the critics and, what could be even more significant, beloved by the Philharmonic's audience. Frustration then consisted more of Gilbert's selection as the new Music Director of New York's main orchestra.

The search for Lorin Maazel's replacement -the latter Philharmonic's Music Director- involved huge expectations, controversy and discontent. Maazel was the last link of a chain of prominent musicians that conducted the New York Philharmonic over the second half of the 20th century -George Szell, Pierre Boulez, Zubin Mehta and Kurt Masur-: a period preceded by the extraordinary tenure of Leonard Bernstein.

When Maazel's contract with the Philharmonic was coming to an end, its Board of Directors decided to hire a new conductor that would guarantee some sort of continuity to that magnificent series of conductors. The name of one of the most well known -and controversial- conductors of the beginning of the 21st century stood out the most to fill the vacancy: Riccardo Muti.

Muti, 67, embodied the perfect choice to take the baton of the New York Philharmonic. With an impressive resumé, the Italian conductor became the most sought after musician by the New York media and audience to take the lead of its orchestra. Muti had already conducted the Philharmonic on several occasions as a guest conductor and said concerts were highly anticipated by concertgoers and critics. (The New York Philharmonic musicians had also expressed their joy of playing for Muti, which is a vital factor when it comes to choose the main leader of any orchestra.)

Even when the Board denied the rumor of having made an offer to Muti, some blogs had already informed, extra-officially, that some sort of proposal had in fact been made to him. Those rumors would be confirmed later when Muti rejected the offer. This would not only provoke discontent among certain circles, it would also mean the beginning of an outrageous controversy. Soon after Muti discarded the New York Philharmonic's position, alluding that he was not interested in conducting any American orchestra, he would sign a contract to become the new Chicago Symphony's Music Director in 2010.

New York City's pride couldn't be more affected. There has been a historic rivalry between Chicago and New York, and that competition has also reached the main orchestras of both cities. At the end of 19th century, Theodore Thomas, who was the New York Philharmonic's conductor in 1891, abandoned it to create the Chicago Symphony, an ensemble currently considered one of the best orchestras in the world, due to the high quality of its performances and its recordings -a couple of endeavors developed during the excellent commands of Maestros Georg Solti and Daniel Barenboim.

After a few weeks, the controversy gradually diminished and the Board chose Alan Gilbert as the New York Philharmonic's Music Director. The announcement caused disappointment among certain classical music circles. Not only because of the recently signed's lack of recognition, but because of the unforeseeable turn the Board had taken. On one hand, by choosing Muti they would have looked for some sort of continuity -perhaps not literal but very close indeed- to the conservative line drawn by Masur, Mehta and Maazel. On the other hand by choosing Gilbert, the move would represent some sort of a rare strategy.

This initiative, though, joins the recent trend followed by some American orchestras of singing young conductors in an apparent attempt to refresh that aged trait classical music has always been associated with. From this series of hiring, Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel's (29) as the new Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director might have been the most noteworthy. (His naming was highly publicized, and his welcome ceremony was headlined by a remarkable group of celebrities and covered by international media). The most recent signings include the French Ludovic Morlot (36) as Seattle Symphony's Music Director, and the Canadian Yannick Nézet-Seguin (35) to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Alan Gilbert may not be a name that resonates as strong as Muti's, but one cannot underestimate his achievements. He was named Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra's Music Director when he was only 29 years old. Throughout his nine years' term, the assistance to his concerts increased and he also obtained more funding from the Sweden Government. He also recorded with this orchestra a praised version of Mahler's Ninth Symphony. In parallel, he was the Music Director for the Santa Fe Opera, where he enhanced his opera conducting skills. On September 16th, 2009 at the age of 42, Alan Gilbert would become the first New Yorker ever to conduct the New York Philharmonic -an orchestra he had already conducted on several occasions since 2001. (He also conducts his mother, who plays the violin for the orchestra.)

Alan Gilbert's first season achieved several triumphs. The program managed to be balanced by delivering a catalog that included famous pieces along with others lesser known. Similarly, Gilbert conducted a good number of pieces written by novel composers -a sensitive issue among the critics, who naturally applauded the decision. The performance of Ligeti's opera Le grand macabre was perhaps the Gilbert's accomplishment most remarked by the media. (The New York Times called it "a landmark in New York Philharmonic's history".) The season's end consisted of the performance of Beethoven's Misa Solemnis, an epic and rarely played piece, even when the German composer himself considered "as the most beautiful of my entire repertoire".

The New York Philharmonic is an ensemble that perhaps required of a leader with an already obtained legacy like Riccardo Muti, but Gilbert has known to earn his own merit with talent, determination and audacity. Gilbert may not possess the features of other American orchestras' conductors: James Levine's profficiency (Boston Symphony Orchestra), Franz Welser-Möst's operatic versatility (Cleveland Orchestra), Michael Tilson Thomas' mediatic charisma (San Francisco Symphony), Gustavo Dudamel's popularity (Los Angeles Philharmonic).

Nevertheless, it is unlikely that none of those conductors have had to face such a harsh beginning as Gilbert's. New York is certainly a relentless town. And when it comes to its cultural icons they don't hesitate to show their most ruthless side. Alan Gilbert has proved to be prepared and intelligent enough to assume this difficult task and, in just a season, has begun to bring back to his hometown the pride of having one of the most important orchestras around the world.


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