Top conductor to create UN of orchestras in tense times

Conductor Alan Gilbert, who is ending his tenure at the New York Philharmonic, envisions a group of musicians playing concerts that express hope for peace, cooperation and shared humanity.
Conductor Alan Gilbert, who is ending his tenure at the New York Philharmonic, envisions a group of musicians playing concerts that express hope for peace, cooperation and shared humanity.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • 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 consumed much of the world.

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

He envisions a group of artists from around the world who can come together at short notice in what is dubbed Musicians For Unity.

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

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 which often have sour political relations with the United States and one another, including China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Russia and Venezuela.

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

He recalled that the Philharmonic in 2008 played a landmark concert in North Korea that brought some audience members to tears.

Yet, he acknowledged that tensions surrounding the nucleararmed communist state have grown since.

Still, he 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, talking is not exactly working. Even though it's an age-old cliche, music's capacity to communicate without words is really unparalleled."

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 next year 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 they could have convened for major events such as the launch of the Paris accord on climate change - which has since taken a blow with US President Donald Trump's plans to withdraw from it.

The conductor has closely coordinated his idea with the UN and its Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has sent a message of support.

The Philharmonic performed in the General Assembly Hall as Mr Guterres took over from Mr Ban Ki Moon in December last year, playing selections including Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, one of music's defining works of hope.

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

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

"I don't see it as cultural imperialism," he added. "But I'm also very interested in learning about other classical music, as (cellist) Yo-Yo (Ma) refers to it."

He is the first New York-born music director of the Philharmonic, in which both of his parents were violinists, and 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, who is seen as more in the traditional mould of a conductor who demands exacting performances of classics.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2017, with the headline 'Top conductor to create UN of orchestras in tense times'. Subscribe