Despite the near-unanimous praise of Alan Gilbert in all the media outlets who still write about classical music, I have heard consistent grumblings about him from a variety of musicians. After last week's big news that Gilbert would be taking over the conducting program at Juilliard, I spoke to a friend of Seated Ovation and asked that friend to comment on the news. I am a Gilbert fan, though I've only seen him conduct once; my friend, as you will see, is not. This guest post will remain anonymous for obvious reasons. I have posted my friend's response unedited except for a couple tiny fixes.
Last Wednesday, the New York Times reported that Alan Gilbert would be replacing James DePreist as director of conducing and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School. It will be the first time that a music director of the New York Philharmonic will also be teaching at Juilliard. The Times reported that this new connection to the Philharmonic will mean his conducting students will be attending required rehearsals, meeting with orchestra members, and having possible internships at the Philharmonic departments at Avery Fisher Hall. Juilliard is clearly hoping that this connection to the New York Philharmonic will create an environment similar to what the Curtis Institute has with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Although Juilliard is across the street from the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, and the New York City Opera, and many of these ensembles have large amount of Juilliard alumni, they have never enjoyed an official relationship between any of these organizations and their musicians.
This all sounds fantastic for Juilliard. They now have a high profile conductor as their orchestra director who is also currently music director of the New York Philharmonic and has direct access to what the Philharmonic musicians can offer students. There is only one problem: Juilliard in their search for an orchestra director completely avoided the fact that Alan Gilbert has had a terrible time conducting Juilliard students so far. Positive opinions about Gilbert's conducting among students are rare and most students hope to avoid his concerts in the future.
The first time Alan Gilbert came to conduct the Juilliard Orchestra was in November 2008, in a concert of the third symphonies of Beethoven and Bernstein in Avery Fisher Hall. The first rehearsal was a complete disaster. Most of the time, preliminary rehearsals for concerts with famous conductors are done with the resident conductor George Stelluto, but Alan Gilbert decided to show up to the very first rehearsal and was appalled at the level of playing. By the end of the rehearsal, he declared that the orchestra “didn't know the fundamentals of orchestra playing” and stormed out of the room once the rehearsal time was up without a decent “See you next rehearsal.” Juilliard, apparently embarrassed about the incident and hoping to fix whatever went wrong, had to hold a meeting among its orchestra members in a dance studio to talk about why Gilbert was so upset. It had to have been the students' problem.
But the conditions did not improve in subsequent rehearsals. Gilbert's behavior at times bordered on acting like a bratty child when he couldn't get what he wanted out of the orchestra. Gilbert had to show that he was in charge all the time. Every instrument had to be micromanaged by him, no woodwind solo could make it by without Gilbert's input. It often came down to leading musicians through passages note by note and instructing them how to play, as if they were completely clueless. Gilbert's insistence that all musicians look at him as he conduct seemed like an obsessive preoccupation that he couldn't let go of. Gilbert's opinion was that if you're not looking at the conductor, it's impossible to play with the other musicians around you. When the orchestra musicians strayed back to their music it often ended back with Gilbert declaring "I'm sorry, but you're just not doing what I want". It didn't seem to matter that the boy choir in Bernstein's Kaddish symphony averaged around the age of 8, because he also managed to hound on them for not looking at him too. Instead of the collaborative process between conductor and ensemble, Gilbert wanted to make the performance about himself.
So many of the comments that Gilbert gave to the orchestra would be totally unacceptable in a professional environment. How can a member of a string section be singled out and embarrassed in front of the whole orchestra by the conductor in today's professional environment? Or how can it be tolerated when Gilbert said that some of the musicians "had their heads up their asses"? One would hope that he doesn't act the same way to the New York Philharmonic musicians. Is it because it's the Juilliard Orchestra that it's tolerated (and not only tolerated, but rewarded with a position)? These are, after all, some of the people Gilbert will be conducting in orchestras someday. The students left feeling that he was overly controlling and rude.
One positive thing that can be said about the final result was that the orchestra played with a technical precision that is often lacking in student performances. But it was done out of duty and because of the verbal abuse that Gilbert handed out to the students. There was no love of playing in the performance. Perhaps this is similar to what Edward Seckerson in the Independent was talking about when he reviewed Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic on tour in 2010, saying they "merely brought themselves... it wasn't enough"... or the review by Barry Millington in the London Evening Standard of the same concert that said the "New York Philharmonic is stuck in their comfort zone". It was not an invested performance.
It's possible that Gilbert doesn't feel confident about his future at the Philharmonic. He's currently in his second of five contracted years with the Philharmonic and by taking the Juilliard position he might be hoping to become more of a permanent fixture of Lincoln Center. Or if the contract is not extended, he could focus on teaching at Juilliard. Management is changing at the Philharmonic since Zarin Mehta is retiring and it's uncertain what changes might occur. Despite what the press seems to say about Gilbert's programming, audiences are not very receptive to works such as Magnus Lindberg's Kraft, where a significant amount of audience members left before the work was played. The same goes for the Contact series, where most of the Philharmonic's audience would have rather seen the Philharmonic play the Messiah taking place at the same time. It's not that these works shouldn't be played or heard, but they appeal to a niche market and the administration of the New York Philharmonic is concerned with selling out concerts on a regular basis. Running an orchestra is financially difficult. Another problem is that Gilbert is still only known by name for most classical listeners and what his conducting is like is generally not known. His only commercial recordings are of Christopher Rouse's symphonies and Mahler 9 with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and based on the schedule on his website his guest conducting appearances are few and far between. The Philharmonic may feel pressure to get a bigger name that people know in the future.
Alan Gilbert is exactly the type of conductor a young musician should not play with, because the way he rehearses will make them hate playing in orchestra. There is no element of having fun playing with Gilbert the way there is with conductors such as Nicholas McGegan or Bernard Haitink, who both recently lead the Juilliard Orchestra in inspiring concerts. There also seem to have been much better choices home in New York: for example, George Manahan, the conductor of the New York City Opera who has conducted the Juilliard Orchestra in the past with much success, would have made a fine choice. James Conlon, another favorite among students, has also expressed interest in becoming the director of orchestral studies at Juilliard, but apparently Juilliard is not interested. The same goes for Otto-Werner Mueller, a great conductor for young musicians and Gilbert's teacher who formerly conducted at Juilliard and Curtis and now is exclusively at Curtis. But Juilliard went for Gilbert because he's music director of the New York Philharmonic. The connections and the publicity are too good to pass up, so who cares about the students?