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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[…]

The idea of showing the tempo to help musicians play together is basic—but conducting so much more than that. It’s about inspiring them and making the musicians feel that there’s something in the music that they want to express.

Question: What qualities separate a great conductor from a mediocre conductor?

Alan Gilbert: It'srn kind of... it's like the duck:  you know it when you see it.  It's hardrn to describe a duck, but when you see a duck you know it's a duck rnbecause that's what a duck is.  A great conductor is someone who can rnwork with musicians and stand in front of them and bring out the best inrn them and create a musical experience that communicates to the rnaudience.  And it's hard to say what it is because there are conductors rnwho are very clear and show the tempo in a very precise way and help thern musicians play absolutely together, but something is missing.  The soulrn is not there; the spirit is not there.

And then there will be rnmusicians or conductors who have no obvious technique and seem scrappy rnand all over the place, but something happens.  So what it means to rnconduct, actually, is sort of the basic question.  The idea of showing rnthe tempo to help musicians play together is basic, but it's so much rnmore than that.  It's about inspiring them and making the musicians feelrn that there's something in the music that they want to express.  And rnit’s, I would say it's very hard to put your finger on what exactly rnconducting is.  A conductor is the person who stands in front of the rngroup and moves his or her arms.  But how to get the musicians to be rnable to play their best, but also even more importantly to want to play rntheir best and communicate something to the audience. That's all part ofrn the equation.

How critical are you when you attend a performance where someone else is conducting?

Alan Gilbert:  Well, it's hard to shut off the critical rnfaculty because what we try to do as musicians is create the best rnpossible musical line, and it involves many, many choices that hopefullyrn don't sound like choices at the end of the day.  But when I listen to arn piece that I know very well, it's impossible for me to avoid comparing rnit to how I feel about the piece.  Sometimes, in the most fortunate rncircumstances, listening to a concert I am able to forget about what I rnthink about how I would do the piece and just join the party, as it rnwere, and just allow the music to unfold.  That generally means that I rnthink "Wow."  At the end of the concert I can think, "That was totally rnconvincing.  That was a beautiful performance, and that really made rnsense.  And the depth of feeling, the depth of meaning and the music rnreally came to life."

There’s so many layers on which to rnappreciate a performance.  There's the way the interpretation goes, as rnwe were talking about.  But there's also how it's played, how much rnbelief the performers have, how much technical skill they are able to rnbring to it, if there are mistakes, if there are things that don't go rnperfectly together, I mean, things like that can happen.  When I listen rnto the New York Philharmonic, whether I'm conducting or just listening rnin the audience, I can marvel at the amazing technical level and the rnability of the players to operate their instruments.  That's a very rnexciting level in and of itself.  There are certain pieces that are fun rnfor that reason, almost primarily.  You can just admire the way it's rnplayed.

I have to say it's sometimes hard for me to hear concertsrn because a lot of the music I hear I tend to have done myself, or know, rnand I try to leave my preconceptions and my prejudices at the door, but rnit's not always possible.

Recorded on June 18, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman