So What’s The Real Story With Gilbert’s Exodus?

Ever since the surprise announcement, the field has been abuzz with punditry and speculation about why New York Philharmonic (NYP) music director Alan Gilbert is leaving his position after such a comparatively short age to tenure ratio and amidst a turbulent period in the organization’s evolution via the hall formerly known As Avery Fisher renovation.

Adaptistration People 066The more people talk, the less likely anyone will ever have a comprehensive understanding of the events; Mark Twin perhaps expressed this conundrum best when he said “Familiarity breeds contempt. How accurate that is. The reason we hold truth in such respect is because we have so little opportunity to get familiar with it.”

Regardless the reasons, here are some dynamic concerns worth examining related to the timing for Gilbert’s departure and its impact on unfolding events that aren’t always making the rounds among the usual culture media outlets.

Concertmaster Concerns

Any incoming concertmaster would be well advised to secure the shiniest of golden parachute severance clauses. Although there are plenty exceptions to the rule, it isn’t unusual for an incoming music director to put his/her choice for concertmaster into position and Gilbert’s departure should make any new concertmaster very concerned since the timing won’t be favorable. In the worst case scenario, this could be enough for a prospective candidate to take a pass on the opportunity and given how few violinists exist capable of filling the role of NYP concertmaster, there isn’t exactly a great deal of wiggle room.

Ideally, the NYP will consider postponing the search until after the new music director is selected.

A Twofer (in the wrong direction)

Traditionally, orchestras enjoy two types of recurring events throughout their development that maximize PR and fundraising: a brick and mortar hall project and selecting a new music director. Having both transpire at the same time will almost certainly conspire against the organization in the form of cumulatively lower big donor giving.

Missed Opportunities

Speaking of brick and mortar campaigns; music directors serve as central figures in helping build excitement among donors and securing every last potential contributed dollar. There’s the traditional music director mystique in play here but there is also the gravitas that comes with having a clear artistic vision to help guide the sound design process.

Donors may be motivated by Gilbert’s artistic vision for the hall’s sound design but if he won’t be there to be a part of it in any sort of leadership capacity, why should they care?

Missed Connections

We already touched on the possibility that the NYP may inadvertently reduce an already shallow pool of potential concertmaster candidates and some of the same forces apply here to music director candidates. There’s bitter irony in being the music director that just missed out on having the most influence on the organization’s performance environment since Leonard Bernstein. Likewise, the flip side of the concertmaster concern coin is increased missed opportunity baggage for a conductor taking the music director position right after a new concertmaster is appointed and one key position to shape the sound and style of the orchestra is gone (or at least not without an almost certainly ugly struggle to remove the new concertmaster hire).

In short, who wants to be the NYP music director who just missed out on influencing all of these historical events?

There are half a dozen additional items worth examining but I’m curious to know what you think. Setting aside the reasons why Gilbert is leaving, how do you think is departure will impact the next few, arguably critical, transitional years.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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14 thoughts on “So What’s The Real Story With Gilbert’s Exodus?”

  1. As someone rather cynical of the political machinations of the industry, I would not be at all surprised if these various events are all making way for Rattle to move to NYC. Although he would be “welcomed to London” his career continues to bear uncanny resemblances to Barbirolli’s, who was MD of the NYP in the 1930s-40s for less years than Gilbert will have been by 2017. Few of my fellow Brits (indeed, few people in the world) can resist tasting the exquisite lifestyle and massive income/ resources available in the USA (even today) and although Rattle’s appointment to the NYP is pure reverie on my part… I would not be surprised if it actually happens.

    • IMHO, there is no way in the world that Simon Rattle will move to NYC to take up the NYP. Consider, for example:

      1. The one US orchestra with whom SSR has a long-standing relationship is the Philadelphia Orchestra. They’ve tried multiple times to bring him to Philly, but could never pull it off. SSR has little, if any, guest-conducting relationship with the NY Phil. That alone would make it no sense at all to force a musical marriage between the two.

      2. Rattle has 7 concert dates with the LSO next season. He has none with the NY Phil next season. That also would be a signal of where SSR is more likely to head after Berlin.

      3. Rattle and Magdalena Kozena have young children, and a post in the USA would put even more travel and time stress on their family than they already have.

      So now the questions become:

      a. Who is available to take over the NY Phil in 2017, or maybe 2018?

      b. Which conductor is willing to take over the NY Phil then? Being available and actually wanting the job are two very different things.

      c. Which conductor is the orchestra willing to “get married to”? While I know that Drew doesn’t like nebulous or more speculative text here, it’s pretty well known that the NY Phil is far from the easiest orchestra to get along with on a personal level, based on attitude. Maybe that’s why Maazel seemed to work well with them, when you have an orchestra with a big collective ego being led by a conductor with a bigger ego than all of the musicians put together.

      To speculate on an answer to Drew’s question, it sounds as though for the orchestra’s, Gilbert’s departure comes at perhaps the worst time possible, precisely because they have so much on their plate that they want to accomplish, and they won’t have a music director to act as a key recruiting and fund-raising figure. This could put things on hold in that regard, yet again. The easiest thing to do would be “business as usual”, and defer hall upgrades and the orchestra turning into a roving body until they actually have a new music director in place.

  2. Gilbert is leaving in 2017, so there is ample time to get the search process going. In the past, directors making their intentions this early has been a sign of respect to allow the orchestra to not scramble. In interviews, the players have generally been appreciative of Maazel’s contribution, and his professionalism. People have different musical tastes – and indeed the recent choices of director – Mehta, Masur, Maazel, and Gilbert – have each brought something slightly different to the table.

    • Furthermore, now we know the Gilbert years are numbered, the public should celebrate these times, and contribute to the orchestra as they would normally. Usually a future music director conducts as a guest before that, and the guest lineup has been pretty good, so we’ll keep an eye on the guests. But the contributing shouldn’t change – the deciding on whether to renovate the hall or get the new concertmaster now – nobody is better equipped to make those decisions than this orchestra. So to the public I say leave those decisions to them, but if you really love them, you should still be going to concerts and giving either way.

  3. Following up on this, because I just pointed someone I know to the posting –

    * Rattle to the LSO, as was rumored.

    * Frank Huang, currently concertmaster of the Houston Symphony, was just appointed concertmaster of the NYPO.

    O’Keefe and Vanska can stay put in Minneapolis.

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