The Anatomy of a Performance

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 \r\nme obviously because it was the first one as a music director, and it \r\nwas live on television, and the way the rehearsal schedule went we \r\ndidn't have that much time to prepare it, so we were not as played into \r\nthe program as I would ideally want to be.  I'm not making excuses.  I'm\r\n just saying that this was the situation.  So when I went out on stage I\r\n was in a way trying to skip a step.  I love the experience of playing a\r\n piece over and over on tour because it does improve.  It develops, it \r\nmatures, and we had a wonderful experience doing that in January and \r\nFebruary.  I did a tour with the orchestra.  This was several months \r\nafter the opening, and one of the pieces we played was the Second \r\nSymphony of Sibelias.  I like to keep working, and I like to keep \r\nrefining and perfecting things, and when we finally came back to New \r\nYork and played it in Carnegie Hall, it really was possible to give a \r\nperformance that was based on comfort and experience.

This one we\r\n hadn't played, and I tried in my mind to kind of play a mental trick \r\nand just pretend that all that development had happened, and sometimes \r\nthat actually works very well, and with an orchestra like the New York \r\nPhilharmonic that can really deliver in the moment and be poised, it can\r\n work. 
\r\nFor me emotionally, I was also trying to stay calm.  I don't really get \r\nnervous for concerts.  Some people find that interesting to hear.  They \r\nthink, "Oh, do you get nervous in concerts?"  I don't so much get \r\nnervous, and even in this concert, which was highly scrutinized and \r\nimportant‚—being the first one and all—I wasn't so nervous, but I was at\r\n the same time trying to make sure that I was calm, and I wasn't taking \r\ntempos too fast.  Sometimes when you're not aware of it, if you're keyed\r\n up, and if the stakes are high, tempos tend to come out faster.  I was \r\ntrying to really just settle down and make as expressive a case for the \r\nmusic as I can.  And the Berlioz is a great piece as far as that goes.  \r\nIt's a great piece by any measure, but it's so colorful, and it has a \r\nkind of combination, I think.  You know, some people have called Berlioz\r\n the kind of "most German" of the French composers, and I find that \r\nactually interesting and rather telling because he has the kind of \r\nimpressionistic, pastel, refined quality of sound in his music.  And I \r\nthink you hear that right at the beginning, and that's one of the \r\nexcerpts that we've just looked at.

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

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

Recorded on June 18, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

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