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Gilbert to step down after eight seasons at New York Philharmonic

Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic perform at the Spring for Music festival in New York. Gilbert announced today that he will be stepping down as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 2017, after 8 seasons. (credit: Steve J. Sherman)

The New York Philharmonic announced today that Alan Gilbert will step down as music director after eight seasons, at the end of the 2016-17 season.

The timing of the decision, coming as the orchestra gears up for a major fund-raising push and the thorough renovation of the concert venue still known as Avery Fisher Hall, will inevitably raise questions about whether the decision was made entirely voluntarily, or whether an orchestra that’s looking for a new name for its concert hall is also looking for a new face to represent its future.

In an interview with the New York Times reporter Michael Cooper, Gilbert said, “It’s become clear that the next chapter, logically, has to carry the organization through to the opening of the hall, which is at the earliest 2021.” He added, “It’s just longer than I want to stay around. It’s actually that simple.”

Gilbert was, of course, supposed to be the orchestra’s new face himself when he started in the 2009-10 season. As a 40-something American conductor with lifelong ties to the Philharmonic (both his parents were long-time members of the orchestra), he represented youth and a commitment to new music and new ways of doing things. And he’s borne this out in practice with a range of initiatives, from the new-music series “CONTACT!” to semi-staged musical and operatic productions (Ligeti’s “Grand Macabre”) to the New York Philharmonic Biennal, a new-music festival that had its inaugural season this past May.

But though he had all the right ideas, and all the right moves, it wasn’t always clear that Gilbert had the musical stature to be a dominant leader of the orchestra. To put it bluntly, his conducting wasn’t always very exciting, particularly in the standard repertory, which even the most adventurous orchestra can’t afford to neglect. And though he worked mightily to connect with the players and the city, it’s hard to say he was particularly beloved of either. His departure at this point leaves his tenure feeling somewhat inconclusive; he hasn’t been at the orchestra long enough fully to implement a lasting vision of change. And whether his initiatives survive him depend entirely on who takes his place.

The game of Name That Successor has already begun with a vengeance – the names of dozens of current conductors have appeared on my Facebook and Twitter feeds in the last couple of hours – and will occupy the industry for months to come. Who is established enough to be credible, yet young enough to have a longish tenure? Is it better for the orchestra to find an interim leader while its hall is renovated, and inaugurate the new candidate with the new building, or to make a concrete move as soon as possible to find someone who will inspire donors to come on board? Gustavo Dudamel, in Los Angeles, and Yannick Nezet-Seguin, in Philadelphia, are prime examples of what every orchestra is looking for these days: a young, charismatic figure who can connect with the community and create both local and national interest – and who comes without the baggage of a prior major post, and a prior major reputation in the press and the minds of audiences. (And if neither is American, both are from the Americas – one from Venezuela, the other from Canada.)

Without the benefit of inside information (nobody has that at the moment), I can make less a short list than a wish list. Of the better-known American conductors – including Michael Tilson Thomas, James Conlon, Marin Alsop, and David Zinman – I think only David Robertson might really make sense, for a host of reasons including age and stature and flair and my own personal preference. Manfred Honeck and Jaap van Zweden, who both came to Pittsburgh and Dallas as relative unknowns and have both done some wonderful things in their respective cities, have been mentioned as intriguing possibilities. Though Esa-Pekka Salonen and Simon Rattle have both been mentioned, I wouldn’t bet on either; Salonen ended his 17-year tenure in Los Angeles so he would have more time to compose, and will be the New York Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence starting in the 2015-16 season. As for Rattle, he is stepping down from the Berlin Philharmonic at the end of the 2017-18 season, but I’m not sure that leaping into an American music directorship is likely to be exactly what he has in mind.

Two other names suggested by colleagues (thanks, Lisa Hirsch and Joshua Kosman) who I’d love to believe might be in the running are the Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, not yet 40, who now leads the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, is about to take over at Madrid’s Teatro Real, and was named Musical America’s 2014 Conductor of the Year; and Semyon Bychkov, in his early 60s, gifted, widely experienced, with a track record in the States (at the Grand Rapids Symphony and Buffalo Philharmonic) and a glittering resume of appearances with leading ensembles, now active with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Bychkov is even an American citizen.

And I haven’t even touched on a whole cadre of younger conductors: Daniel Harding, Sakari Oramo, James Gaffigan, Ludovic Morlot.

Or the most radical idea of all. If personal preference were really a factor, and the Philharmonic wanted to be really visionary, they could go out on a limb and – hire a woman.