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A Conductor's Lair, Informal but Not Too
Alan Feuer | The New York Times | 23 September 2009

Just last Wednesday, a few hours before he was to take up the baton for the gala first night of his first full season at the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, the orchestra's 42-year-old conductor, came offstage, ducked into his suite at Lincoln Center and, opening a bottle of Poland Spring, dropped down onto his month-old, royal blue, velvet-covered couch.

Mr. Gilbert, still showing the remnants of a maestro's sweat, had just come from his final dress rehearsal and was lavishly complimentary of the band he was about to take control of. "They have limitless reserves of concentration — it's amazing," he said, adding that in particular, the Berlioz they would play that night ("Symphonie Fantastique") had been rendered with "an absolute abandon, full-blooded, with no element of holding back, like it was a matter of life and death."

While it may sound strange to have a classical performance discussed in terms that could also fit a Springsteen show, it is basically to the point. Mr. Gilbert — both personally and according to the Philharmonic's shrewd promotional apparatus — radiates a youthful vigor, an almost boyish sense of the casual, that is meant to draw a bright line separating the future of the august institution from its European-influenced and somewhat stuffy recent past. So, too, does his suite.

"It's an office, but I didn't want it to feel too corporate, like an office," he said of his quarters, furnished not by an haute East Side designer but by his assistant's brother's Pennsylvania furniture company.

It is Philharmonic tradition to let new conductors design the suite according to their liking, and Mr. Gilbert's version: grand piano, Persian-ish rug, sweet stereo system and a framed vanity license plate reading "Mozart" — had what he described as "a clublike feel, the kind of place you'd just be happy hanging out in."

Of the room's many uses — rehearsal space, administrative center, musical study, dressing room and post-performance reception area — "hanging out" was never at the top of the list for the young music director's predecessors, Kurt Masur, who was 75 when he left the orchestra, and Lorin Maazel, who was 79.

"Mr. Masur was a European of another generation, and you wouldn't have gone into his room without an appointment," said Eric Latzky, the Philharmonic's chief spokesman. "Lorin never really inhabited the space; it never quite became his own. But Alan's already inhabited the suite. He wants it to be this sort of vital meeting place."

"Vital meeting place," of course, does not mean Dylan backstage at the Royal Albert Hall, and, for all of Mr. Gilbert's aerobic informality, his suite was still filled with Olympian high-art touches.

Hanging on the wall was a copy of the program from Gustav Mahler's first night conducting the orchestra in 1909 and a signed front cover from the score of Aaron Copland's "Connotations." His pressed tuxedo (he owns 10) hung in the corner on a polished wood valet above a pair of glossy shoes. On the coffee table, some congratulatory bottles of Champagne: one from the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, another from the Bernstein (as in Leonard Bernstein) family.

Still, there is something telling about the fact that despite her nearly 30 years of playing violin with the Philharmonic, Mr. Gilbert's mother, Yoko Takebe, never once set foot in the room before he got there. That, of course, has already changed — and perhaps not for the better.

"Now she just barges in without knocking," he complained.
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