There is little doubt that, after eight years as NY Philharmonic music director, Alan Gilbert has become a better, more assured conductor than when he started. And, through Gilbert's influence as director and personnel manager - responsible for hiring no less than 27 musicians, including a new concertmaster, principal trumpet, and principal clarinet - the Phil has undoubtedly become a better orchestra.
As we've noted here many times over the years, perhaps the biggest factor in Alan's success has been his bold, innovative approach to programming, which saw the Phil embrace contemporary music in a way not seen since Pierre Boulez and forge a completely new path into staged productions, making the most of Geffen Hall's limitations. And so, when the Phil asked Alan what he'd like to do in his final weeks as music director, he chose, among other things, Olivier Messiaen's 1983 masterpiece Saint François d'Assise, in what would have been, after several previous failed attempts, its NY premiere. By all accounts, everything was in place: the director chosen, the singers cast, the dates set.
Except, it was not to be. According to Alan, who spoke candidly with the Times' Michael Cooper about his various frustrations with the Phil, "The plug was pulled, shall we say." Having seen Saint François in Amsterdam in 2008, I can understand the Phil's concerns: the opera is more than five hours long, and is full of challenging, dissonant music that would almost certainly send subscribers - never known for their willingness to embrace modern music - racing to the exits, as they did the last time they played Messiaen's Eclairs sur l'au delà, a NY Phil commission. I just wish someone had said something sooner so that the Met could have done it, as originally planned.