As Alan Gilbert prepares to close out his eight-year tenure with the New York Philharmonic, he’s laying the groundwork for a new project to be launched in collaboration with the United Nations, called Musicians for Unity.
In his three final Lincoln Center concerts as music director, Gilbert offered a kind of sneak preview, gathering guest musicians from 22 orchestras in 19 countries for a performance of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. They included guests from Iran, Iraq, Israel, Turkey, Russia, Venezuela, Mexico, South Africa, Japan and European countries (Gilbert’s Swedish wife, cellist Kajsa William-Olsson, was among the latter). Friday night’s concert also featured a short set by the Wynton Marsalis Quartet (in opening remarks, Gilbert cited the trumpet player’s work as an international cultural ambassador).
Ending each concert season with a big multimedia project or opera staging has been staple of Gilbert’s tenure; the massive “Philharmonic 360” concert at the Park Avenue Armory in 2012 stands out as the most ambitious Gilbert-led production in my memory. But this finale was more rooted in concerns of the moment. “I wanted to do something to signal the power music can have in helping make the world a better place and helping people get together,” Gilbert said before Friday night’s performance. The simple enough explanation drew a hearty applause from a notably young-looking audience.
(In a New York Times interview earlier this year, Gilbert was more pointed about sending a message in the wake of Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban, noting that “I’m not going to shy away from that question.”)
Friday’s performance was also preceded by a video statement from United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, who asserted the importance of music and culture to the organization’s activities. Meanwhile, a series of kiosks in the second-floor lobby at David Geffen Hall detailed past instances of cultural diplomacy by the Philharmonic. They included Leonard Bernstein’s 1959 tour of the U.S.S.R. that paired music of Copland and Shostakovich, and the 2008 tour to North Korea (whose efficacy was widely debated).
It’s worth noting that multinational orchestra performances have taken place at the U.N. in the past. A United Nations Orchestra was founded in 2011, and has since given more than 30 performances, according to its website. And this 1967 video shows Secretary-General U Thant introducing a group made up of individuals from each member state. Where Alan Gilbert takes his new project should be fascinating to watch.
Top photo: Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic at United Nations, 12/14/16. Photo by Chris Lee.