How the New York Philharmonic’s European Tour is the Perfect Farewell and Fresh Start

Classic Arts   How the New York Philharmonic’s European Tour is the Perfect Farewell and Fresh Start Music Director Alan Gilbert shares his vision of today’s New York Philharmonic on their final tour together.
Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic at London’s Barbican (2015), where they are returning this year
Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic at London’s Barbican (2015), where they are returning this year Chris Lee

No orchestra has done more than the New York Philharmonic to build on developments in new media. From the Young People’s Concerts, which in 1962 began to be televised, to the Leon Levy Digital Archives, launched in 2011, the Philharmonic has embraced mass communications as a way of extending its mission.

Yet, with all this—plus recordings, broadcasts, and social media—offering great ways to enjoy a performance, there is no substitute for being in the same room with musicians who are making the strings vibrate and air columns resonate. In addition to playing a full season in New York, the only way to get more people into the room is by touring.

The Europe/Spring 2017 tour—which is sponsored by J.C. Flowers & Co.—travels to Antwerp, Belgium; Luxembourg; Düsseldorf, Essen, and Hamburg, Germany; Budapest, Hungary; Vienna, Austria; London, United Kingdom; and Copenhagen, Denmark. The repertoire includes Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique; Mahler, with soprano Chris-tina Landshamer; Prokofiev, with violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann; and John Adams, with the newly formed New York Philharmonic String Quartet. Glamorous highlights include appearances at two of Europe’s newest venues—Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie and Antwerp’s Queen Elisabeth Hall—and the European Premiere of the Cello Concerto by The Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence Esa-Pekka Salonen, spotlighting Yo-Yo Ma, a close musical friend of conductor, composer, and Orchestra.

Alan Gilbert
Alan Gilbert

There is also a deeper emotional component to this tour: it is Alan Gilbert’s final one before concluding his tenure as music director this summer. “I would be lying if I said it wasn’t in my mind that there’s a special sense of excitement,” he says. Since arriving at the Orchestra in 2009 Gilbert has moved the Philharmonic forward in countless ways. He has stretched both the Orchestra and its audience in terms of repertoire and the possible contexts and formats for orchestral performance. And there are his collaborations with other major artists. About the upcoming tour, he muses: “It is very gratifying to continue sharing the results of our belief in artistic collaboration—the rewards that come with working closely with Esa-Pekka, our Composer-in-Residence, and in reuniting with Frank Peter, a former Artist-in-Residence.”

This sense of musical family reflects a key aspect of Gilbert’s vision for the Philharmonic. “I have tried to cultivate a team to build a rich artistic environment for both the audience and the Orchestra,” he explains. “The Composer-in-Residence is a key partner, and Esa-Pekka Salonen is not only a brilliant composer but a great conductor, so he has integrated seamlessly into the artistic vision we have tried to create.”

For any orchestra, the act of touring itself—playing in a different room almost every night—creates a demand for flexibility that is an important element in artistic growth. That is why, Gilbert explains, the Philharmonic’s appearances in Hamburg and Antwerp, at the two new European concert halls, present no greater artistic challenge than does playing in older halls for the first time.

“Whether a hall is brand new isn’t as impactful on the orchestra as you might think,” says Gilbert. “When we return to a hall where we’ve performed repeatedly, we come knowing how to respond to any challenges it may pose. And even halls that were built a century ago can be new to many of the musicians.”

Still, he eagerly anticipates one of these new venues: “I’ve never been to the Elbphilharmonie in its completed state, but Hamburg and its orchestra have been important in my life for 15 years, and I’ve watched the hall as it has been worked on. My musical friends who have heard the hall are all unanimously excited—such unanimity is extremely rare and bodes well.”

Adding a festive note is the celebration of John Adams’s 70th birthday year through performances of his The Chairman Dances and Harmonie-lehre, as well as Absolute Jest, a spirited concerto for “solo ensemble” that marks the European debut of the New York Philharmonic String Quartet, comprising Concertmaster Frank Huang, Principal Associate Concertmaster Sheryl Staples, Principal Viola Cynthia Phelps, and Principal Cello Carter Brey.

What draws Gilbert to Adams as a composer? “The kind of personal voice that he has found, which came into its own in Harmonielehre, is absolutely vivid and unmistakable,” explains Gilbert. “I particularly like that he takes a modern, American sense of expression and uses it to build on the symphonic tradition that goes back to Bruckner in a completely organic way.”

This tour embodies no particular valedictory message. In fact, an important aspect focuses on the future: the Philharmonic’s third residency at London’s Barbican Centre, which includes one of the Orchestra’s signature projects aimed at the next generation, a Very Young People’s Concert. The residency also captures one of the Philharmonic’s hometown, in-school educational projects by supporting the Barbican Guildhall Creative Learning team’s new Young Songwriters Collective, for 14- to 18-year-olds. According to program organizers, the collective “was created, in part, on the Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers model, and involves training teaching artists and working directly with young composers.”

This is a program that Gilbert clearly believes in, as it brings the youngest listeners away from their screens and earbuds, and into the room where music is being made—often for the first time: “My hope for our audience, and especially our younger audience members, is that seeing and hearing the performances of pieces by their peers can inspire them as potential musicians and composers and that it can bring them into the world of orchestras generally.”

Stephen Greco’s most recent novel is Now and Yesterday (Kensington Books). He co-authored Giants Are Small’s Peter and the Wolf in Hollywood: The Live Show, which will be premiered at the Kennedy Center in May.