Alan Gilbert
Music Director of the New York Philharmonic

How to Make Dozens of Musicians Play as One

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An orchestra has a momentum as it plays. Its flow can be affected and redirected, but the conductor must do it in an natural way to avoid jarring turns.

Alan Gilbert

Alan Gilbert has been musical director of the New York Philharmonic since September 2009. He was previously chief conductor and musical adviser to the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, and has conducted other leading orchestras including the Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco symphony orchestras; the Cleveland and Philadelphia Orchestras; and the Berlin Philharmonic, Munich's Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and Orchestre National de Lyon. He also holds the William Schuman Chair in Musical Studies at the Juilliard School in New York.

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.

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 I hear?”

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 frequent.

Recorded on June 18, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman