Alan Gilbert ’89: Musician, Conductor, Visionary

Lowell Common Room was pitch black. The audience shuffled. Instruments fell silent and the music began. Alternatively dissonant and melodic chords rose and fell, interrupted by meditative poetic passages.

Alan Gilbert ’89 had just entered Harvard College as a freshman. He was playing the violin that evening, performing an experimental piece that juxtaposed the chamber music “Quartet for the End of Time” by French composer Olivier Messiaen with the lofty poetry set “Four Quartets” written by T.S. Eliot.

“He was so totally committed to the music, very unselfconsciously absorbed,” said Yun Soon Lee ’87, who played piano in the quartet with Gilbert that evening. “He projected a very natural confidence and authority based on his musicianship.”

Gilbert has now served as director of the New York Philharmonic for the last five years, honing a reputation for unexpectedly intermingling the symphony with other artistic forms.

He has managed to define a cohesive musical philosophy that relies on technical proficiency while approaching the complex, and often unfamiliar, landscape of modern music.

Today he says that the years he spent at Harvard profoundly shaped how he approaches musical performance at the Philharmonic by encouraging him to take risks while maintaining technical exactitude.


Gilbert estimates that he participated in about 100 productions over the course of his four years––one for about every week he was on campus.

“We had to do everything ourselves, so resultantly we were always putting on concerts,” he said.

Gilbert also used his time at Harvard to develop his eclecticism. Already an experienced conductor as well as a violinist, Gilbert was constantly asked to conduct works by a slew of known and more obscure composers.

“The range of things was really impressive,” he said.

Harvard ultimately fostered a unique community, which Gilbert acknowledged could verge on pretentious.

“It was extremely highbrow and unbelievably austere and pretentious,” Gilbert said. “It would only have happened at Harvard.”

Although the Harvard music scene could be overly highbrow at times, it offered Gilbert a chance to pursue a wide range of academic and musical opportunities.

A conservatory, on the other hand, would have offered a more focused path.