The Anatomy of a Performance

The conductor describes what he was thinking and feeling during his first performance with the New York Philharmonic.
  • Transcript


Question: Describe how you were feeling and what you were thinking about during this performance.

Alan Gilbert:  Yeah, well this was a special concert for me obviously because it was the first one as a music director, and it was live on television, and the way the rehearsal schedule went we didn't have that much time to prepare it, so we were not as played into the program as I would ideally want to be.  I'm not making excuses.  I'm just saying that this was the situation.  So when I went out on stage I was in a way trying to skip a step.  I love the experience of playing a piece over and over on tour because it does improve.  It develops, it matures, and we had a wonderful experience doing that in January and February.  I did a tour with the orchestra.  This was several months after the opening, and one of the pieces we played was the Second Symphony of Sibelias.  I like to keep working, and I like to keep refining and perfecting things, and when we finally came back to New York and played it in Carnegie Hall, it really was possible to give a performance that was based on comfort and experience.

This one we hadn't played, and I tried in my mind to kind of play a mental trick and just pretend that all that development had happened, and sometimes that actually works very well, and with an orchestra like the New York Philharmonic that can really deliver in the moment and be poised, it can work. 

For me emotionally, I was also trying to stay calm.  I don't really get nervous for concerts.  Some people find that interesting to hear.  They think, "Oh, do you get nervous in concerts?"  I don't so much get nervous, and even in this concert, which was highly scrutinized and important‚—being the first one and all—I wasn't so nervous, but I was at the same time trying to make sure that I was calm, and I wasn't taking tempos too fast.  Sometimes when you're not aware of it, if you're keyed up, and if the stakes are high, tempos tend to come out faster.  I was trying to really just settle down and make as expressive a case for the music as I can.  And the Berlioz is a great piece as far as that goes.  It's a great piece by any measure, but it's so colorful, and it has a kind of combination, I think.  You know, some people have called Berlioz the kind of "most German" of the French composers, and I find that actually interesting and rather telling because he has the kind of impressionistic, pastel, refined quality of sound in his music.  And I think you hear that right at the beginning, and that's one of the excerpts that we've just looked at.

It starts out with this amazing lightness and delicacy.  You can imagine a kind of Monet painting where the colors kind of bleed into each other, and it's very veiled and lovely.  And then there are moments in the piece where there has to be an incredible precision and a rhythmic drive.  There are very few composers who I think really encompass this incredible range of both rhythmic precision with tonal fantasy.  As a conductor you try to show the time as clearly as possible, but there are moments in this piece where it doesn't work simply to be precise.  You have to embody the evanescence of the sound, the kind of lightness of texture.

It's very interesting how just the simple quality of your body; if you hold your hands like this, or if you relax them, it effects the sound instantly.  The players read that, and they sympathetically create that kind of sound.  I find it very difficult.  I think all conductors find it very difficult to have the right kind of connection and horizontal lightness in sound while at the same time determining points along the way that are the temp.  That's to me the challenge of Berlioz, and really what I was trying to accomplish is to have both sides of his music.

Recorded on June 18, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman