Layover Thoughts

By Alan Gilbert

Yesterday´s trip from New York to Stockholm turned out fine, I guess, since I eventually arrived, but it would have been easier to take if the problems had resulted from the bad weather that has closed so many of Europe´s airports, rather than from a simple screw-up by the airline. To make a long story short, the airport staff could not locate my reservation, due to the way it had been originally entered. When they finally figured out that I really did have a reservation, the flight had closed, and I couldn´t board. I had to buy a ticket on another airline, for a flight that had a long layover in Amsterdam.

The good thing (other than ending up joining my family at our home just outside Stockholm) was that this gave me time to think about my upcoming Leinsdorf Lecture (on April 4), at which I plan to discuss musical interpretation. On the plane I read a wonderful article by Alan Goldman with the deliberately provocative title of  “The Sun Also Rises: Incompatible Interpretations.” Goldman presents two very cogent, but diametrically opposed, readings of Hemingway´s The Sun Also Rises, and tries to resolve the question of whether they can both be “right.”

This discussion resonated in a meaningful way for me since, for a long time, I have been grappling with my own thoughts about what it means to interpret music, and what makes one  interpretation more compelling than another. I admit that it´s only relatively recently that I´ve been adding a certain rigor to my musings, but I have long held the image in my mind of a piece of music being represented by a mountain, and differing interpretations of the music represented by the different ways one can ascend that mountain. One mountaineer (i.e. musician) might scale the work from the south side, where it is raining, and another might start from its north side, where it is sunny, and both might achieve heights equally close to the summit (that elusive “perfect” interpretation) with completely different points of view.

I´m not sure where I will finally come out on this subject – somehow I like the idea that there is a perfect, best interpretation of a given piece of music, although in practical terms it is essentially meaningless, not least because performances happen in real time, under constantly changing conditions. Furtwängler described a performance as a river: always the same, and yet always different. This seems to me to be a position that is extremely close to an assertion that music does have one “right” course, although one that naturally shifts.

Added complications to the question of musical interpretation include the dimension of technique and execution that is obviously integral to the performance experience, and the expectations and prior knowledge of the audience. A performer must have the technical capacity to realize an interpretation, and this technical capacity finally becomes part of the interpretation, or at least an important aspect of what the audience takes from the performance. Furthermore, audiences may bring their own prejudices, which can either be supported or challenged by a performance – this also becomes part of the relative success or failure of an interpretation.

Hopefully I will come to a point where I will be able to discuss all these threads convincingly. For the moment, I just wanted to share some of my preliminary thoughts with you. I am finding it a fascinating process to read the huge body of work that has been written on the subject by many brilliant philosophers, and will make what headway I can over the next few months.

In the meantime, all best in this holiday season, and see you in the New Year!

(For more information on Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, visit

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