NY ensemble opens in fall with new conductor

In the world of classical music, orchestra audiences — or at least the boards of such institutions — would often rather hedge their bets and hire music directors in their 70s or even 80s than take their chances by looking for long-term relationships with younger conductors.

So when the New York Philharmonic, an orchestra that in recent years has had something of a reputation for playing it safe, announced that 42-year-old conductor Alan Gilbert would be its next music director with a five-year contract beginning this September, it felt to many observers that the winds of change were finally blowing into Lincoln Center.

Even before the 2009-10 season officially begins, the philharmonic is ushering in a new era by quite literally throwing open its doors to the city. “The idea is to indicate a connection between the orchestra and the wider city,” says Gilbert, the first-ever born-and-bred New Yorker to lead the group in its 167-year history. “We’re not just a great orchestra that happens to be located in New York City; we want to emphasize that we are rooted here.”

To that end, the orchestra will be hosting a “Day of Music” on Sept. 12 when the public is welcome to attend open rehearsals, demonstrations of classical instruments and short performances as well as to mingle with the players and Gilbert himself. The event culminates in a free performance. “We want to really welcome New York into our home at Avery Fisher Hall,” the conductor affirms.

“It’s a drop in the bucket,” Gilbert admits, “but it’s sincerely put forward. I hope that we can make this a regular part of what we do. People can feel really intimidated by what have become the rituals of the concertgoing experience. Some of that I happen to like — playing and hearing music is a special event — but part of what we have to do, on our end, is to demonstrate that there’s nothing fancy in and of itself about making the music, about coming to Lincoln Center. People go to hear other kinds of music as a normal experience, and we need for that to be true for us as well.”

Back in 2007, when the orchestra announced that Gilbert would inherit a job once held by Leonard Bernstein and Gustav Mahler, as well as its most recent leader, Lorin Maazel, the orchestra’s president, Zarin Mehta observed, “Every time Alan’s come here, it’s been better than the prior time. We’ve watched him grow.”

In fact, Gilbert literally grew up around the orchestra as the son of two players: his mother, Yoko Takebe, is a violinist in the ensemble; his father, Michael Gilbert, who retired in 2001, was also a New York Phil violinist. Gilbert fondly recalls his life as an “orchestra brat,” attending rehearsals and concerts weekly and going along with the ensemble on their tours.

The orchestra’s programming in Gilbert’s first season also provides a glimpse of his ethos. “There’s nothing fresher than a new work,” affirms the conductor, who has commissioned a world premiere from 51-year-old Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg for his inaugural concert as music director on Sept. 16. That concert will also showcase superstar soprano Renee Fleming in Pierre Boulez’s “Poemes pour mi” and Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique.” (In recent years, opening-night programming has consisted solely of warhorses of the repertoire; the last time the Phil presented a world premiere on such an occasion was in 1962, when Bernstein led Aaron Copland’s “Connotations.”)

“I believe that the orchestra should constantly be trying to find great new work from new voices,” adds Gilbert.

Other world premieres at the Phil in 2009-10 include works by the American composers Christopher Rouse, Sean Shepherd, Arlene Sienna and Nico Muhly, who recently scored Stephen Daldry’s film “The Reader.”

“The spirit of adventure and of possibility is exciting,” says Gilbert, “and we should embrace it as much as we can.”

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