Question: What are you listening for when you're conducting?
Alan Gilbert: Well, both. I mean, I try to hear everything
that's happening, and that can be very, very difficult, and someone that
tells you, “Oh, I hear everything that's happening onstage” is lying
because there's almost no way, I think, to really do that. But as an
exercise, I do try to identify, okay, What is that musician, the third
flute, playing? And I try to make sure I can hear that. You have to
hear what's going on because if you're... there's a way... I've used the
analogy... It's like a ball, a very big ball. You can affect the way
the ball rolls, and you can change the direction that the ball is
rolling if it's already in motion, but you can't suddenly have it turn
an abrupt angle. There's a natural way that the ball can be guided, so
even though you're steering the ball there's a natural momentum the ball
has that you can't interfere with.
If the orchestra has a
certain flow, you can affect the flow, but there's a natural way to do
that, and there's a way that actually would interrupt the natural flow.
So it's not that you can just do whatever you want. You have to take
into account what is happening and what is being offered from the
players. So that means really being in touch with they're doing and
hearing them as well as you can. It's surprisingly difficult to really
identify, not even with two, or three, or four lines, but even just one
line, to really hear what the will and the sense that the players are
giving to one line, to really listen to that and to actually be able to
react to it in a meaningful way is surprisingly difficult.
Question: When you hear an instrument that is out of sync, how do you steer it back without throwing everyone else?
Alan Gilbert: Well, that's difficult, and what happens is
if there's more than one current, if there are conflicting currents
onstage, then you have to make a choice. You have to either give in or
insist. For the other musicians onstage, if they sense two currents, if
they say... for example, if I show one thing and they hear a response
to that that is not in sync, then they have a dilemma; they have to
choose, “Do I go with what I see from the conductor or do I go with what
So I very often tell orchestras, even the New York
Philharmonic, say, “You know, I really want you to play with my lead.
It's not that I care about your following me that precisely, it's just
that I want to take the element of choice out of the question” so that
people are not forced to decide Do I follow him or do I not follow him?
There has to be just one current. Of course, mistakes happen.
Accidents happen. If something goes wrong, then you just have to use
your sense and that's based on experience. Either you give in -
sometimes it's better to give in and allow it to sort of right itself
over time. Other times you sort of dig your heels in and say “No. This
is where it is.” And it creates a discomfort and uncomfortable moment,
but you try to use your best sense, and I couldn't say it's always one
way or it's always another way. You just have to figure out what's the
best way to get out of those situations, and hopefully they're not too
Recorded on June 18, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman