New horizons for Alan Gilbert, new Chief Conductor of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester. This isn't an ordinary move in the game of Conductor Chess by any means. It's a Bishop's Move, which could change the whole board. The new Elbphilharmonie and the support network behind it has the potential to change the whole game. Read my piece Elbphilharmonie - Game Changer HERE. Gilbert hasn't flip-flopped by any means - he's landed on his feet up and running with one of the most exciting developments in the whole industry.
Although Hamburg is Germany's second-largest city, and wealthy, the heart of German orchestral life centres on the Big Three - Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden, cities whose cultural pedigree reflects centuries of top-level patronage. The NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester was founded in 1945, from the ruins of war, in which much of Hamburg was destroyed. It was a radio orchestra, no small thing since German broadcasting itself has a grand tradition. With the new Elbphilharmonie building it now has one of the finest homes of any orchestra in the world, backed up by a package of other services. Even the backstage facilities are so good that other orchestras want to come visit, which also ups the game. The population of Germany is close to 82 million, and the population of Europe as a whole 743 million. Hamburg is smaller than New York, but it's strategically placed. If the Elbphilharmonie develops into a cultural hotspot, the orchestra is in a good position. Gilbert's in a win-win situation.
With the new building, new frontiers. While the orchestra isn't in the league of the Big Three, or centres of exceptional excellence like Lucerne, Hamburg could provide something unique. The gala Opening Concert honoured Johannes Brahms, native son, and composers with North German connections, of whom there are quite a few, many of them modern. Gilbert's interests thus dovetail neatly with European taste. Lyons, for example, where his career took off, and where I first heard him, is progressive. One of the high-profile international broadcasts from the Elbphilharmonie featured Shostakovich and K A Hartmann, a Bavarian yes, but one of the most important composers of the 20th century (Please read my piece here). Germany is in a unique position in that it's culturally very diverse and vibrant, and open-minded. That concert featured the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, not nearly as conservative as one might assume, conducted by Ingo Metzmacher, a Hartmann maven and one of the more interesting conductors on the circuit. With all respect to Gilbert, he's not in Metzmacher's class, but he is audience friendly and can reach those who speak no language other than English.
When Gilbert unexpectedly announced he wouldn't renew his contract with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, there was much speculation, since he's a NY homeboy with family connections who might, in theory, have toed whatever line was needed. No speculation from me. But read this well-informed piece from Michael Cooper : Alan Gilbert wanted to save the New York Philharmonic : What happened ? All too often, commentary goes along the lines of "I like/don't like" as opposed to analysis and a basic understanding of business logistics. Recordings are just artefacts, they aren't what happens in the real world of performance, and these days, the recording industry doesn't have a stranglehold on what reaches the market. e need to remember that music is a living force, that never stops changing. It doesn't exist in hermetically sealed limbo.
A conductor does a lot more than conduct: he's a conduit for ideas and reflection, primarily musical, of course, but ideas that impact on human experience. Claudio Abbado, whose birthday is today, was a communicator of genius. Very few even come close to Abbado in terms of insight and empathy. But Gilbert is a pretty good thinker. Some months back, he was being interviewed by NDR Kultur (not the orchestra, but they would have heard it). They threw a tricky question : what did he think of Donald Trump ?
Being diplomatic, Gilbert hesitated, choosing each word as carefully as possible. "I think it's a time in which art and beauty have more importance and relevance than ever,. I hope it's not too much to say that at the heart of what we do as musicians is the search for truth. These days there seems to be a full scale assault on the principles of The Age of Enlightenment. As musiciqns, we need to assert ourselves powerfully to show that there is still beauty and there is truth in the world. I've been working with musicians, colleagues and friends to use what we do, to use the platform we occupy to make this world a better place. The thing about music is that it is an international language, and it can speak to people from all different cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds. .... I hope that what we can offer to the world is a message of inclusion and shared humanity" (Full clip here).
"Inclusion and shared humanity." Dangerous words, these days! But not at all untypical of the way Gilbert's been thinking for ages, in terms of orchestras and their place in society. Below, another, longer clip, in which Gilbert talks about the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester and himself (they go back together a long time). It's upbeat, as it should be. Who knows what lies ahead ? But Gilbert and the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester together could be a force for good. Please also read my many pieces on arts policy, and on the new Concert Hall for London.