A debate emerged between those who feared that the Philharmonic could not afford to take risks and those who feared it could not afford not to. It was a theme Mr. Gilbert turned to in a speech in April 2015 while on a tour of London with the Philharmonic during which it played only 20th- and 21st-century works. Invited to deliver the Royal Philharmonic Society Lecture, Mr. Gilbert spoke about what he called the need for “a new paradigm” in classical music.
His prescription was not to wall off new music by itself, or to resort to what he called “the Bolero approach,” washing down new music with popular pieces such as Ravel’s “Bolero,” but to patiently gain your audience members’ trust.
But by then he was already a lame duck. His announcement, in February 2015, came as a surprise to many. The news that he was leaving — without a new position lined up — sparked plenty of did-he-jump-or-was-he-pushed speculation in the music world. His explanation, then and now, was that staying much longer would force him to either remain through the renovation of Geffen Hall, years more than he cared to stay, or risk bailing on the orchestra in the middle. (The earliest the Philharmonic is expected to move back into the hall is 2022.)
Mr. Gilbert may be remembered as the biggest change agent to lead the Philharmonic since Pierre Boulez in the 1970s. And he’s had an impact on personnel: “In eight years, Alan has hired 27 new musicians,” said Deborah Borda, the orchestra’s incoming president and chief executive orchestra. “So it is a new generation of musicians, including four principals. And that will leave its imprint for generations to come.”
But while his hires are likely to stick around, his innovations may not. His successor, the Dutch maestro Jaap van Zweden, is best known for crackling…