American conductor Alan Gilbert—Music Director of the Royal Swedish Opera, Chief Conductor of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, and former Music Director of the New York Philharmonic from 2009 to 2017—and frequent BSO guest Garrick Ohlsson will premiere Justin Dello Joio’s piano concerto Oceans Apart, written for Ohlsson. Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar’s wide-ranging 1911 Serenade has a satisfyingly symphonic scope. French composer Lili Boulanger’s impressionistic 1918 depiction of a spring morning and Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s celebratory Carnival Overture, from 1891, complete the program for Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
The conductor spoke with BMInt on Monday.
FLE: Many of us are very glad to see that you will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of your BSO/Symphony Hall debut with these concerts. So let’s begin by asking about the world premiere of Dello Joio’s Oceans Apart. Absent a history of performance practice, or lots of notation as to expression, how do you know what to do? Are you depending on interaction with the composer himself? The other question is, did you ask to conduct this? Or did the BSO make the match of you and Dello Joio?
They asked me to do it. This is a piece that apparently was commissioned some time ago and was not finished in time for the planned premiere, so they’re finally doing it now. And it’s always a pleasure to work with Garrick Ohlsson, who’s one of the great, great pianists and artists. It would please me to be part of any project involving Garrick.
I don’t know Justin Dello Joio’s music. It’s a new piece for me and a new composer for me. But you can get very quickly to the heart of a score if you’ve spent a lot of time studying new music. And I have to say, his notation is very, very intelligent, very forward, and it’s been fun to spend time with this score. It’s also interesting that we’re going to have the composer himself on hand. It means I’ll be able to ask a lot of questions, which can be very helpful. That being said, a score is designed to be intelligible and understandable in the absence of the composer—that’s the purpose of notation. Composers generally write pieces that they expect to be interpreted.
Oceans Apart has had a long gestation since Ohlsson suggested the commission several years back. It sounds bold and broadly evocative of big themes, and it sure has a lot of percussion instruments…some 50 including the inevitable crotales and a second piano [Read the composer’s notes HERE]. Have you spoken with Dello Joio? Or are you going to wait until the first rehearsals?
No. I’ll probably see him at the first afternoon rehearsal, if he decides to attend it as some of the other composers have done.
Do you have any feeling on the necessity of thematic connection among the pieces in the particular program, or is it okay simply to open a box of chocolates and take various delicacies out one after the other?
I love to make programs that have a theme and connections. A lot of thematic programs rank among my favorites, but I don’t think programs generally have to have a connecting theme. Sometimes a theme could just be good music that somehow works together. And sometimes there’s an expressible reason why that happens.
Do you have audiences comfortable following you when you go to challenging places? For instance, the Ives Fourth, which you did at Symphony Hall a few years back, is pretty challenging. Do you get pushback from management if you do too many things that demand a lot?
Generally speaking, people are very interested in exploring new things. There’s this idea that audiences only want to hear the same music over and over again. And that may be true to a degree. But even people who love Beethoven enjoy Beethoven more when it’s in the context of other pieces and selections.
Are you interested in the art of orchestra building to create an imprint over time? When you have been at orchestras for a number of years, do you think they sound different when you leave than when you arrived?
Definitely. I think that’s the idea. As a conductor, that’s your objective with an orchestra, to create a kind of personal imprint. As a guest conductor, you try to develop the best chemistry and make the best music you can within a single week. As a music director, you do that too, but you can also take time to gestate. Even the best orchestras need help and nourishment and loving care, so there’s a certain kind of work that only a music director can do. It’s about the way the orchestra interacts both within itself and with the conductor. These things take time to gradually nudge and tweak—that’s the fun part about being a music director.
Can you talk about ways in which orchestras have improved your ability to communicate?
My ability to communicate?
Yeah. I mean, have you ever learned anything from orchestras?
All the time. Of course.
So you listen to their words as well as their sounds?
Of course. You learn over time what you need to address and when it’s better to let things unfold in their own time, and at their own pace. Of course, I learn things from the players. How could I go into a great orchestra like the Boston Symphony and think that I have nothing to learn? There’s so much collective experience that they bring a lot to the table, and that’s what’s fun about working with the BSO. But it’s really a situation where you try to meet them halfway.
Have people ever quietly told you that you don’t have to give us every single cue or be over-demonstrative in a piece they’ve played 100 times before?
The better the orchestra is, the greater the responsibility for the conductor to focus on the musical point of view. And it’s not so much what’s involved with making it work technically.
Right. And how often do you like to surprise orchestras in performances by doing something differently than you did in the rehearsal?
Every time, actually. I think that’s important, but hopefully not for willful reasons. Music goes different ways every time because life does different things every time. If it’s utterly predictable, then it’s probably boring. And you know, there can be a strategic reason to shake things up to keep people on their toes and to let them know that it’s not autopilot time. Furtwängler famously described music as following the course of a river. It’s always the same river on the map, but not on the ground. I think that’s a very nice thought.
That image also evokes the symmetry of your BSO program which begins with Lili Boulanger’s dulcet sorcery in her Morn in Spring and after meandering through various eddies and rapids, ends with Nature, Life and Love in Dvorak’s Carnival Overture. What great exit music!