Native New YorkerALAN GILBERT, Chief Conductor of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, takes the club! questionnaire and explains what it takes to work in three different cities simultaneously. He has extended his contract and will be delighting – and challenging – audiences at the Elbphilharmonie concert hall for a further six years.
FACING THE MUSIC
- What were your reasons for taking the job as Chief Conductor of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra?
“There were many reasons for accepting the offer: I have a long and important connection with the orchestra. Ever since I first worked with it in 2001, it has been one of my most important artistic homes. After more than 20 years, the relationship still seems fresh, and we’re on an important artistic journey.“
- Are there any differences between working in Germany and the U.S.?
“Obviously, there are differences in the working cultures and traditions surrounding orchestras in different countries. But I prefer to focus on the things that are similar and shared by musicians. The common language of music makes it possible to move seamlessly from one place to another. Essentially, we’re all trying to do the same thing with music and even though the languages are different, we’re all working to express ourselves and share our music in a very similar way.“
- What makes working abroad attractive for you?
“I am very fortunate to be invited to work as a conductor and violinist in different places. I love to travel, I love to experience different cultures, I love to eat food from dfferent places and I love being able to share what I do with a wide audience.“
- Which characteristic do you value most in your musicians?
“I couldn’t be luckier to have such a wonderful group of committed musicians in Hamburg. The only thing I ask of them is to really be generous with their energy. There must be a shared sense of purpose and a sense that we are all doing it for each other.“
- What are your plans for the future of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra?
“It was a huge honor to be Music Director of my hometown orchestra – and a huge challenge because New York is the most scrutinized stage in the world. The point about orchestras is that they exist in the city where they play. Every city is different, and every city needs something slightly different. And I think the important thing is to connect with the people of the city in a way that is meaningful to them. We are helped in Hamburg by having arguably the world’s greatest concert venue. The personal connection we have with our audience and our subscribers is exceptionally strong. I try to capitalize on that to satisfy the audience’s musical needs. But also challenge and encourage them to find things that they didn’t even know they were looking for.“
- Besides your engagement in Hamburg, you are the Music Director for the Royal Swedish Opera and a guest conductor in Stockholm and Tokyo. How do you switch from one country to another, from one orchestra to another?
“I have a lot of responsibilities with my two main positions in Sweden and Hamburg, and in my position in Tokyo. There is always a lot of planning to do and scheduling that becomes more complicated. The hardest thing is keeping on top of the study and preparation. But I have always been the kind of musician who enjoys challenges and engaging with a lot of different repertoires.“
- What was your dream profession as a child?
“I was interested in many different things when I grew up: There was a period when I thought I was going to be a doctor. But there was also such a strong momentum around and towards music that maybe I never really had a choice.“
- What do you do on a free weekend?
“I am fundamentally a lazy person, but am incapable of spending my time the way a lazy person would. I always have too much to do. I’m lucky that my pathological need to be prepared is always stronger than my laziness; I will always do what it takes to be ready for my next project. But If I have a free weekend, I embrace it and happily sit back and do nothing.“
- Where do you like to go on holiday?
“Since I travel so much there are no specific places I need to visit. The most important thing is to be with my family. My oldest daughter is away from home now, studying in the U.S. so I’m looking forward to seeing her on our next vacation, which happens to be in Japan.“
- Is there anything that has truly scared you?
“A lot of things scare me these days in the world. I never would have thought 15 or 20 years ago that we would be back at this level of chaos and horror in the world, and I am very nervous about the direction things are going because it only seems to be getting worse. The ability for people to speak to each other and be understanding of each other’s beliefs and cultures seems scarily at risk now.“
- What drives you?
“I think once you achive a certain place in your career you could sit back and enjoy where you are, but I’m interested in continuing to improve. This was something that my parents instilled in me: the idea that you are never good enough. It has a difficult side, because you feel you can’t meet the standard that is required. But it is a good motivating force. Believe me, I know there is a lot of room for improvement.“
- What do envisage for your retirement?
“I’ve been talking to my family and friends about the idea of retiring and they laugh. I don’t have any plans to stop but honestly: I can imagine not conducting, I can imagine having no plans – that would be beautiful.“
- Did you have a mentor who helped you in your career?
“I think it is very important to have mentors. I’ve had important people in my life whom I have studied with officially and others that I have just observed or been around. One of the things that has been most gratifying to me in my life has been teaching and trying to be a mentor to younger musicians. And I’m getting to the stage in my life where most musicians are younger musicians. Teaching is something I’ve loved. I was professor of conducting at the Juilliard School in New York and I don’t have a position now since I moved back to Europe, but there a lot of young conductors who follow my rehearsals and ask for advice and I try to be helpful in any way that I can.“
- Any advice for people embarking on a career?
”Being a conductor is about more than what you see on stage. You really need to be richly fulfilled with musical culture. My advice to young conductors is: “Work as hard as you can, so that you are as ready as you can be for as many opportunities in the future.”
- You have one wish – what do you wish for?
”For a world that is peaceful and where all children can have safe, healthy and peaceful lives.”
Grammy Award-winning conductor Alan Gilbert, born in New York City, has been Chief Conductor of Hamburg’s NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra since fall 2019 and Music Director of the Royal Swedish Opera since spring 2021. In Hamburg, his adventurous programming, thought-provoking festivals and regular online streaming are taking the orchestra to new artistic heights.