Alan Gilbert: »We really mean it seriously«

The conductor Alan Gilbert about his love for contemporary music.

He doesn’t make any distinction between old music and new music: »It’s all part of one coherent whole«, explains Alan Gilbert, who attaches great importance to modern music and its interpretation. As chief conductor of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, he regularly surprises his Hamburg audience with fascinating contemporary sounds.

In your own conducting career, contemporary music has always played an important role, on an equal footing with the classical repertoire. Why is that?

As performing musicians, we can be a part of it when the next chapter in music history is written! Of course not every new composition is a masterpiece, and you never know what to expect, not even with a composition written to commission. But that has never been any different: how many works from the era of Mozart or Beethoven are no longer played today? There must be thousands that haven’t survived the test of time for some reason or other. And today it’s our job – musicians and the public alike – to write the next chapter together: to play and listen to the music of our time, always in search of works that will last.

 What is the underlying mindset?

In the last few years I regularly had a funny feeling at concerts featuring contemporary music. It’s true that a lot has happened here, and contemporary music is increasingly appearing on orchestras’ concert programmes. But I’ve sometimes had the impression that this was a kind of fig leaf: a new composition flanked by music by Beethoven, or a contemporary programme at an out-of-the-ordinary venue. It sounded a bit like, »Sure, we’re paying attention to modern music as well – but we’re really performing Brahms symphonies in a big concert hall«. I have always believed that we should not only appreciate the works of the old masters, but also the music produced by our contemporaries, because this music is a reflection of our present and I think we should show that we really mean it seriously.

Alan Gilbert Alan Gilbert © Peter Hundert

»One needs a viewpoint to look at a work from – a solid standpoint.«

Alan Gilbert

What are the challenges?

One needs a viewpoint  to look at a work from – a solid standpoint. That is what makes contemporary music so difficult, the fact that every work speaks a language of its own. Whereas when I go to a concert to hear a Mozart symphony, even if it’s one I’ve never heard before, the musical style is familiar, and it’s not hard to gain access to Mozart’s world.

Everything that’s composed today is a reflection of our society. And the music being written now is as diverse as people themselves, as the world we live in. The variety of different styles is so great that it’s impossible to generalise. And that has the advantage that each of us can find his or her own approach to contemporary music, to the particular music that speaks to him or her. It can be exciting to discover something completely new, to discover things that go beyond one’s own ideas of music. As I said, the range of styles is huge, which renders it impossible to categorise contemporary music. What we can do is depict this diversity – and that brings us back to the museum: you enter a room full of paintings, and some of them grab you more than others.

Alan Gilbert Alan Gilbert © Peter Hundert

»I like the fact that now it’s okay again if music appeals to the ear and touches our hearts.«

Alan Gilbert

Does today’s music have some unifying characteristic, all the stylistic diversity notwithstanding? What can be described as »state of the art« at the moment?

In the last 15 years or so there has been a fundamental change in comparison to what applied in the mid-20th century. In English we have the saying »children should be seen and not heard«, and by the same token, the postwar period for me was a time when composers wrote music that should be seen but not heard. New music back then was very dogmatic; composers wanted to be intellectual, and didn’t attach any importance to their audience. On the contrary, it was a stigma to write music that was pleasant to listen to. Such strict dogmas are long since a thing of the past, and today all kinds of different styles can coexist.

Don’t misunderstand me: of course I am interested in what went on in the 1950s and 60s. Maybe it was even a necessary step to show that music is not just some orgiastic outburst of Late Romantic feeling, but can also make intellectual statements. But I like the fact that now it’s okay again if music appeals to the ear and touches our hearts. These two things needn’t be mutually exclusive: some composers pursue new paths and experiment with unusual sounds, while others write music of a more popular nature, and should not be thought less of for that.

Read more about the history of contemporary music.

Alan Gilbert in the Grand Hall
Alan Gilbert in the Grand Hall © Elbphilharmonie Hamburg

Video: Alan Gilbert about the Elbphilharmonie

When you are preparing a world premiere, do you take the opportunity to discuss the interpretation with the composer, or do you work it out on your own?

Obviously I need to arrive at my own standpoint, my own statement. But I am also very interested in finding out the composer’s intentions. That’s the trouble with a score: the written notes don’t tell you everything. If I look at a Beethoven score, for example, I make assumptions about what he is trying to say, assumptions that are determined by tradition. No one knows whether these are »right« or »wrong« - that’s the way it is with art. But this tradition of interpretation doesn’t exist with a new work; instead, I have the chance to ask the composer in person. Though I must say I get a little suspicious when a composer has a very clear opinion of how his work should function, a kind of definitive answer. If a composer lays down clear rules on how his work should be played, he deprives the musicians of freedom in their interpretation, and so deprives the music of the chance to speak for itself. There are often things in a composer that he or she is not aware of.

Alan Gilbert Alan Gilbert © Peter Hundert

»With new works it’s different: they need to be played first of all, and that is our responsibility as concert promoters and musicians.«

Alan Gilbert

Do you feel a special sense of responsibility at a premiere because as the conductor you play a part in whether the work is a success or a flop?

We interpreters obviously try to do our very best. We can’t do any more than that. But that also applies when we perform a piece of music that’s 200 years old. The sole difference is that with a new composition we don’t know exactly what to expect, so we need to start by finding a specific language for it. And of course there are no points of reference, we can’t compare our own reading with previous performances. But this may also reduce the pressure on the musicians. It goes without saying that no one wants to be responsible for a new work being a flop, but that’s a risk we have to take. And that applies to both sides: the composer and the artists alike have to learn that we do our utmost, and after that things are out of our hands. If a first performance is not a success, that doesn’t automatically mean that the work won’t become popular. Music history is full of examples where the premiere was a disaster, but the work concerned nonetheless went on to enjoy great success.

But it’s often the other way round: a lavish premiere places a new work in the limelight, there are reviews by international critics – but after that many pieces are not performed again, precisely because they are not in the limelight any more.

That’s understandable on the one hand, but on the other it’s a genuine problem. For that reason I try to conduct new works at least twice, and wherever possible even more often. What happens here is a kind of Darwinian selection that the repertoire works have already been through. They have already earned their status, as it were. With new works it’s different: they need to be played first of all, and that is our responsibility as concert promoters and musicians.

Magazin »Visionen« liegt auf einem Flügel
© Philipp Seliger

This is an article from the Elbphilharmonie Magazine (issue 01/2021), which is published three times per year.

Do you think the Elbphilharmonie and the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra should take responsibility for this?

Yes, because contemporary music is one of their core competences, and it is also part of their educational mandate. This is a product of their tradition: the radio orchestras in Germany were originally set up to produce content for their own broadcasting service. This involved performing and recording music that had not been played before. In other words, this is no coincidence, but an organic structure. With its many radio orchestras, Germany possesses something of immense cultural wealth that is unique in the world, something that is important for a society and which we must preserve at all costs. Especially in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, the medium of radio and its orchestras remain one of the ways we can bring music to people.

Interview: Bjørn Woll (9 Dec 2020)
Translation: Clive Williams

Mediatheque : More stories

Hamburg International Music Festival

From 6 May to 6 June 2021 the digital music festival offers a wide range of top concerts from the Elbphilharmonie.

Play Video

Live stream in
on 6 May 2021 at 20:00 :
Digital Music Festival: Opening Concert

2021 festival: The Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra and Kent Nagano with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and a William Blank premiere performed by a top line-up kick off this year’s festival.

Interview with William Blank

Music Festival 2021: Beethoven and flower petals – the Swiss composer on his premiere at the 2021 Music Festival.