Everyone who has met her likes Dina Gilbert, the young French Canadian conductor who is in town this week as the first of three finalists to take over as music director of the Eugene Symphony next season.
She’s smart, quick, funny, enthusiastic and charming, and she just wrapped up a three-year stint as assistant conductor at the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, under Kent Nagano.
It was clear the audience was pulling for her the minute we walked into the Hult Center lobby this evening to hear her conduct the orchestra. “Did you see her talk?” one friend said. “She’s fabulous! Can’t they just hire her now?”
I had some of the same reaction after meeting her on Monday.
But, of course, the proof is in the music, and that was what we all came to hear.
Gilbert conducted four pieces this evening: two prescribed by the orchestra (Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute and Korngold’s violin concerto) and two of her choosing, which turned out to be Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
In the first half of the program – the prescribed Mozart and the violin concerto – she seemed nervous on the podium, waving the baton so energetically at times that she seemed to be flailing. It was sheer bad luck that the violin soloist, Elena Urioste, is tall and glamorous (the Washington Post has called her “a drop-dead beauty”), so their juxtaposition on stage emphasized Gilbert’s youth, as did her bouncing ponytail.
Visual cues aside, the music in both the Mozart and Korngold seemed dutiful but uninspired, as if she were rushing through to get the job done with.
The big surprise for me came in the second half of the program. Gilbert was still nervous. She tried at one point to make her entrance before the orchestra had tuned up, then turned and headed back offstage.
But from the moment she launched into Petrouchka it felt, for the first time, like she had her teeth into something. The orchestra was with her, and so was the audience. The music was solid and moving, and Gilbert was no longer bouncing wildly on the podium, but simply and calmly conducting. That energy continued through all four movements of the Stravinsky and right through the Dukas.
It was an amazing transformation. Perhaps it was because she was playing music of her choosing; perhaps her nerves had finally settled. Whatever the reason, she began to shine.
At a public question and answer session after the concert, she talked – again a bit nervously – about her love of contemporary music and her ideas for attracting a younger audience to symphony concerts. About a third of the audience at Orchestre symphonique de Montréal concerts is under 30, she said, and she hoped she could attract more young people to the symphony if she gets the job here.
I hope so, too.