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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[…]

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.

What are you listening for when you're conducting?

rnAlan Gilbert:  Well, both.  I mean, I try to hear everything rnthat's happening, and that can be very, very difficult, and someone thatrn tells you, “Oh, I hear everything that's happening onstage” is lying rnbecause there's almost no way, I think, to really do that.  But as an rnexercise, I do try to identify, okay, What is that musician, the third rnflute, playing?  And I try to make sure I can hear that.  You have to rnhear what's going on because if you're... there's a way... I've used thern analogy...  It's like a ball, a very big ball.  You can affect the way rnthe ball rolls, and you can change the direction that the ball is rnrolling if it's already in motion, but you can't suddenly have it turn rnan abrupt angle.  There's a natural way that the ball can be guided, so rneven though you're steering the ball there's a natural momentum the ballrn has that you can't interfere with. 

If the orchestra has a rncertain flow, you can affect the flow, but there's a natural way to do rnthat, and there's a way that actually would interrupt the natural flow. rn So it's not that you can just do whatever you want.  You have to take rninto account what is happening and what is being offered from the rnplayers.  So that means really being in touch with they're doing and rnhearing them as well as you can.  It's surprisingly difficult to really rnidentify, not even with two, or three, or four lines, but even just one rnline, to really hear what the will and the sense that the players are rngiving to one line, to really listen to that and to actually be able to rnreact 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 isrn if there's more than one current, if there are conflicting currents rnonstage, then you have to make a choice.  You have to either give in or rninsist.  For the other musicians onstage, if they sense two currents, ifrn they say... for example, if I show one thing and they hear a response rnto that that is not in sync, then they have a dilemma; they have to rnchoose, “Do I go with what I see from the conductor or do I go with whatrn I hear?”

So I very often tell orchestras, even the New York rnPhilharmonic,  say, “You know, I really want you to play with my lead.  rnIt's not that I care about your following me that precisely, it's just rnthat I want to take the element of choice out of the question” so that rnpeople are not forced to decide Do I follow him or do I not follow him? rn There has to be just one current.  Of course, mistakes happen.  rnAccidents happen.  If something goes wrong, then you just have to use rnyour sense and that's based on experience.  Either you give in - rnsometimes it's better to give in and allow it to sort of right itself rnover time.  Other times you sort of dig your heels in and say “No.  Thisrn is where it is.”  And it creates a discomfort and uncomfortable moment,rn but you try to use your best sense, and I couldn't say it's always one rnway or it's always another way.  You just have to figure out what's the rnbest way to get out of those situations, and hopefully they're not too rnfrequent.

Recorded on June 18, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman