Last week, the Brooklyn Philharmonic announced the appointment of a new artistic director: 36-year-old Alan Pierson, best known for his work as artistic director of the contemporary chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound. He will retain that position as he also becomes Brooklyn’s Alan Gilbert, with the mandate of turning around a moribund institution. We caught up with him to ask about what, exactly, his plans are for our hometown orchestra.
The Brooklyn Philharmonic feels like it’s been out of commission for the last few seasons. Does your appointment signal a resurrection?
Well, the short answer is: yes! We’re calling the 2011-12 season that I’m planning now the orchestra’s re-launch. In the long answer, I point out that there’s actually been a lot going on at the Brooklyn Phil even since the Philharmonic stopped presenting its own orchestra concerts: chamber music, a thriving educational program, and some orchestra-for-hire concerts. But yes, this is definitely a new page.
New York already has at least one first-rate orchestra. Do you envision the Brooklyn Phil as a potential competitor?
No, I’m not thinking of it as a competitor at all. I’ve been thrilled to see what Alan Gilbert has brought to the New York Philharmonic—he’s gotten me going to see that orchestra again! But we’re doing something very different in trying to make an orchestra that emerges from, reflects, speaks to, and fosters the growth of Brooklyn’s local artists and musical traditions. So I don’t see competition at all. The New York Philharmonic is doing great things that wouldn’t be appropriate for the Brooklyn Phil, and the Brooklyn Phil is going to be doing its own great things that wouldn’t suit the New York Philharmonic.
You’re advertised as being “well-connected to the breadth of groundbreaking new music being generated in Brooklyn and beyond,” but it also seems like many audiences are turned off by new music. Do you have ideas about how to reconcile the two?
Well, the Brooklyn Philharmonic isn’t a new music group. To the extent that we’ll be doing new music in the Brooklyn Phil, it’s going to be driven by that community-centered mission. Which means that even when there’s a new work on a program, a Brooklyn Phil event is not going to feel anything like a contemporary music concert.
So I don’t see this as being a big issue for the Brooklyn Phil. But, for what it’s worth, my experience is that great music given committed performances—whether it’s new music or old music—will turn people on, not off. So when I hear about new music not going over well, my first suspicion is that it’s our—the musicians’—fault: we’re either playing some not-so-great music or not pulling it off well enough. Of course, I realize that “great” is totally subjective and that there are some people who won’t like anything after Brahms, but my experience touring around the world with Alarm Will Sound has been that if you play great music with a lot of energy and conviction—and, hopefully, skill—people are turned on by it.
How do you plan to connect the Brooklyn Philharmonic to the people of the borough?
I want the Brooklyn Phil to become an essential, dynamic force for music in the borough. We’re in the midst now of brainstorming different projects for different communities. And in developing each of these, I’m thinking—very generally speaking—about two audiences: the local community where we’re going to perform, and the broader New York concert-going public. Those two audiences may be very different, and the goal is always to create a concert experience which will be appealing, enjoyable, fresh, and surprising to both of them. So that everyone has some sort of familiar musical entry point which then leads to something new and surprising. And those familiar entry points will be different for different audiences.
As an approach to orchestral community concerts, this is very different from anything I’ve ever seen before. Community concerts usually involve bringing the orchestra’s repertoire into a community as a sort of fixed object to be presented to this new audience. But we’re looking at the orchestral repertoire as something open and growing that can be changed by the music and the musicians in these communities. We’re also elevating community concerts from their usual secondary place in orchestral programming—something less important and generally less musically substantial than the home-field subscription series—and making them the heart of what we’re doing.
What attracted you to this job?
The orchestra’s board had sketched out this vision of making the orchestra belong to its community that I found very appealing and very exciting. I don’t know that I would have found that same mission so exciting had it been for an orchestra somewhere else, but I know how amazing a place Brooklyn is for music of all kinds, and I can’t think of a better place to take this sort of approach. I also saw tremendous potential here to do something new and original. There’s a pretty clean slate now at the Brooklyn Phil and a real willingness to explore new possibilities and not be constrained by what’s been done before. And yet there’s the support of a terrific board and staff. That’s a remarkable combination.
Will you be moving to Brooklyn?
Not any time soon, I’m afraid! My partner works in the Bronx, and a Brooklyn home would make for a very long commute for him—and he’s the one who has to get up and go to work every day, he reminds me. Plus, moving is just so horrible. Really. We’ve got a place now that we’re happy in, and the thought of tearing it all down and starting from scratch makes me want to just curl up in a ball.