In tense times, top conductor creates UN of orchestras

Conductor Alan Gilbert leads the New York Philharmonic in a free concert in New York's Central Park.
Conductor Alan Gilbert leads the New York Philharmonic in a free concert in New York's Central Park.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (AFP) - In his eight years leading the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert has witnessed the power of music to connect cultures - and watched as political strife consumes much of the world.

Closing his tenure in one of classical music's most prestigious positions, Gilbert is planning a next chapter by creating a sort of United Nations of orchestras.

Dubbed Musicians For Unity, Gilbert envisions a group of artists from around the world who can come together at short notice.

The musicians will "play concerts that express hope for peace and cooperation and shared humanity," he told AFP.

Gilbert experimented with the idea last week as he led his last series at the Philharmonic's home in Lincoln Center.

At his invitation, the orchestra was joined by musicians from 24 countries that often have sour political relations with the United States or one another including China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Russia and Venezuela.

If the project sounds utopian, Gilbert is clear-eyed about the limits.

He recalled that the New York Philharmonic in 2008 played a landmark concert in North Korea that brought some audience members to tears. Yet Gilbert acknowledged that tensions surrounding the nuclear-armed communist state have grown since.

Still, Gilbert believes that music can only be a positive force in a world where conventional diplomacy can come up short.

"I do think that in this day, the talking is not exactly working," Gilbert said.

"Even though it's an age-old cliche, music's capacity to communicate without words is really unparalleled," he said.

Plans for Musicians For Unity - including how it will secure funding - are still in their infancy, but Gilbert envisions starting modestly with two to three concerts a year.

Occasions could include a concert in 2018 to mark the centennial of the birth of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela.

While joking that Musicians For Unity will not be "ambulance chasers," he said the artists could have convened for major events such as the launch of the Paris accord on climate change - which has since taken a blow with United States President Donald Trump's plans to withdraw from it.

Gilbert has closely coordinated his idea with the United Nations, and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has sent a message of support.

The New York Philharmonic performed inside the General Assembly Hall as Guterres took over from Ban Ki-moon in December, playing selections including Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, one of music's defining works of hope.

Gilbert has also taken inspiration from Karim Wasfi, conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, who was among the guests for his Philharmonic finale.

Wasfi has turned up with his cello to play in the aftermath of bombings in Baghdad, assuaging pain through the soothing power of music.

Gilbert - the first New York-born music director of the Philharmonic, in which both of his parents were violinists - has championed new work as well as international travels since he took up the baton in 2009.

He will be succeeded by Dutch conductor Jaap Van Zweden, seen as more in the traditional mould of conductor who demands exacting performances of classics.

Gilbert on Tuesday began to guide the Philharmonic in a series of free concerts across all five New York boroughs, presenting well-known works including Dvorak's New World Symphony. Yet for his final series at Lincoln Center, Gilbert made eclectic selections including a piece by Kinan Azmeh, the Syrian-born clarinettist who marries Arabic and Western classical music.

Guests included Yo-Yo Ma, the celebrated cellist who has tried to find musical commonalities across cultures with his Silk Road Ensemble.

Gilbert hoped Musicians For Unity would both present the Western canon and explore music from other traditions.

"I think Bach is definitely universal and to play a Beethoven symphony can be a powerful experience for anybody anywhere," he said.

"I certainly don't see it as any cultural imperialism," he said. "But I'm personally also very interested in learning about other classical musics, as Yo-Yo refers to it."