It might have been inevitable that Dina Gilbert would become a conductor. The animated young French Canadian woman talks as much with her hands as she does with her voice.
That became clear in a half-hour interview this morning at the offices of the Eugene Symphony, where Gilbert is one of three finalists to replace music director Danail Rachev when he leaves his post at the end of this season. She will guest conduct the orchestra Thursday in its regular season concert.
As with the last three conductor searches, this one has drawn a lot of interest around the country and around the world. Basically, everyone out there who owns a baton wants to work with the orchestra that propelled Marin Alsop to fame and glory with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, followed by Miguel Harth-Bedoya (who went on to become music director at the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra) and Giancarlo Guerrero (now at the Nashville Symphony ).
Gilbert – pronounce her last name as the French do, “jeel-BAIR” – is perfectly positioned for the youth vote, just in case any young people get a say in the selection process. At 32 she’s an advocate for new music who likes to conduct soundtracks for video games and film. In person she’s so animated she seems hyperactive, her hands flying constantly as she speaks.
She’s premiered more than 30 works by young Canadian composers – including one, Alexandre David, who was one of the artists I met in October during my residency at Brush Creek Ranch in Wyoming. (David spoke highly of her as a conductor and as an advocate for new music. “Hire her!” he said.)
Gilbert arrived in Eugene last last week, got to spend a day exploring the community, and then plunged right in on Saturday – her birthday – by meeting the orchestra for a first rehearsal for this week’s concert, which will feature works by Mozart, Korngold, Stravinsky and Dukas. (The symphony board later sang her “Happy Birthday.”)
She said she’s amazed to find an orchestra of this caliber in a city the size of Eugene. “Nothing like this would exist in Canada,” she said. “No regular orchestra in a small community.”
Gilbert just wrapped up a three-year non-renewable appointment as assistant conductor at the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, whose previous music directors have included Zubin Mehta and Charles Dutoit.
She was often called on to step in for current music director Kent Nagano in rehearsals. The first time she said, he called her to the podium to conduct parts of the first movement of Beethoven’s third symphony while he stepped out into the hall. Finally, without warning, he asked her to conduct all other movements as well.
Fortunately she had prepared to conduct every piece of music the orchestra might play while she was there – even if that meant studying scores late every night after work. “It’s normal for me to have just four or five hours of sleep each night,” she said. “That’s OK. When I’m in a rehearsal I’m giving everything, but I’m receiving a lot back from the musicians, too.”
In fact, when I asked her what the public least understands about the job of a conductor, she said it was the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes. “Our job is 99 percent done when the concert starts,” she said. “I spend 70 percent of my time reading scores. The public doesn’t see all the preparation we need to do before getting there.”
Gilbert grew up in a small town in Quebec, the fifth of six daughters in an all-girl family. She started playing piano, switched to clarinet, and took up conducting when a teacher told her she had “an intuitive way of communicating” with her hands.
She is founder and artistic director of Ensemble Arkea, a chamber orchestra in Montreal that performs innovative interpretations of orchestral music.
She has a PhD from the Université de Montréal; her work for the degree was on syncing orchestral music to film. She also has a bachelor’s in clarinet performance and a master’s in conducting.
The program for Thursday’s concert is:
Mozart: Overture to The Magic Flute
Korngold: Violin Concerto (Elena Urioste, violin)
Stravinsky: Petrouchka (1947 version)
Dukas: The Sorceror’s Apprentice
Two other finalists for the music director job have also been named.
Ryan McAdams will be here to conduct the January 26 concert, and Francesco Lecce-Chong will conduct on March 16. Read more about all three finalists here.