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Every Performance Is an Interpretation

Question: How much do you feel you need to stay true to the original intentions of the composer?

Alan Gilbert:  I think interpretation is a fascinating area, and I'm not even quite sure what interpretation is.  I've thought a lot about what it means to interpret music and to interpret anything, for that matter... literature or art, visual arts, paintings...  I think it's absolutely essential to stay true to the intentions of the composer, but what that means is very complicated and very nuanced because there's no composer, I think, who's worth his or her salt who would want his piece played without personal involvement from the performer.  The piece, after all, doesn't come to life until it is played or interpreted, if you will.

And what I try to do is make the music as honest as possible and as natural as possible.  That doesn't mean I keep myself out of the proceedings.  That would be impossible.  Some music requires absolute commitment and a complete force of personality or it's not being true to the composer.  So how you decide how a piece goes has to be based on your personal response but motivated by what is offered to you on the page.  There is the possibility with living composers to ask them what they actually wanted when they wrote something down, but at the risk of being provocative or sounding as if I don't care what they think, I don't necessarily believe that composers are the best... that they know best how a piece should be performed.

I actually am very interested in what is written down on the page because that is a necessarily limited language—the notations, the black and white scrawls that you see on the page.  When a composer decides to write a tempo marking or a metronome marking, how fast they feel the piece should go, it's almost impossible to realize that exactly; it’s a suggestion, but it's a suggestion you should take seriously.  There are times when I will consciously ignore – well, ignore is not the word – but I won't do exactly the metronome marking for various reasons:  because the acoustics in the particular hall I might be playing in is such that – For example, a fast tempo – if we do the actual tempo marking that the composer writes down, it would sound mushy because there's too much reverberation in the hall.  Or the players themselves – maybe you can get more beautiful playing that I think somehow would be more true to the intentions of the composer by altering something or asking for more sound or less sound.

Notation, as I said, is necessarily limited, and I think that's the beauty of interpretation; it’s that you have to take the notation and make it your own.  When I study a piece I try to work with it until I get to the point where if I open the score to any page, I get an immediate and visceral response that this is how the music goes.  That means that I've made choices, but finally in a strange way my personality has nothing to do with it.  Of course, in the actual performance, you have to be engaged, you have to be involved, you have to be able to commit yourself to something.  You have to be able to go for something.

But I think that there's the mistaken idea; people talk about, “Oh, I like the interpretation.”  I think often when people talk about interpretation in that way, what they're looking for is a quirky decision, something that has obviously been worked out.  For me, as soon as I'm aware of a decision having been made in a performance, there's something intrinsically wrong already; the premise is wrong.  I think that the most interesting, and the most real, and the most profound interpretations don't sound like interpretations, necessarily.  They just sound right.

Recorded on June 18, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

The conductor tries to make music as honest and natural as possible—but that doesn't mean he keeps himself out of it. Gilbert says composers don't necessarily know the best way their music should be performed.

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