It was a tense scene at the New York Philharmonic on Thursday. Because of the snowstorm, the morning dress rehearsal for the final program of the orchestra’s Tchaikovsky festival was pushed to early afternoon. Halfway through, the conductor, Semyon Bychkov, felt ill with a stomach virus and had to leave. So Joshua Gersen, the Philharmonic’s 32-year-old assistant conductor, took the podium for the rest of the rehearsal.
With Mr. Bychkov still ill, Mr. Gersen made his Philharmonic subscription series debut a few hours later, leading impassioned and incisive accounts of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem “Francesca da Rimini,” a piece he had never conducted, and the intense “Pathétique” Symphony, a work he had previously led only in part.
In a brief telephone interview on Friday morning, Mr. Gersen, who on March 5 leads his New York Youth Symphony at Carnegie Hall, described what turned out to be a milestone day in his burgeoning career. (The Philharmonic announced on Friday afternoon that he would again be replacing Mr. Bychkov that evening, with the final concert to come on Saturday.)
How much notice did you have about stepping in?
Maestro Bychkov had already rehearsed the “Pathétique” Symphony that afternoon. But during the break he seemed obviously unwell. He was taken to the hospital, just as a precaution. I took over the rest. When the rehearsal ended, around 4 p.m., word came that he would not be able to perform. So I had about three or four hours to adjust.
So, you got to rehearse “Francesca da Rimini,” a piece you’d never performed. But did you know the score?
It’s sort of the job of the assistant conductor to be at the rehearsals and learn the repertory. We’re there to cover all the performances, in the event something happens. So I knew the score.
And you did not get a chance to rehearse any of the “Pathétique” with the Philharmonic.
Right. It’s a standard rep piece I’ve studied many times. I conducted movements as a student and in workshop situations. But I’d never performed it in full.
Mr. Bychkov had already worked on his conception of the symphony with the players. Did you feel bound to adhere to his interpretation?
You have to in some ways adhere to what has been rehearsed. I tried to incorporate as much as I could. At the same time, the only way to do a piece like that is to do it the way I feel it. Otherwise it would have come across as disingenuous.
Most New Yorkers know you from your work as music director of the impressive New York Youth Symphony, a post you’re leaving at the end of this season. I’m sure working with student players, who are gifted and eager but need lots of help, hones a conductor’s technique.
Basically every problem that could possibly arise in conducting an orchestra comes up at some point with youth orchestras. The music director has to solve those problems in rehearsal and in performance. It’s good training. But conducting the New York Philharmonic without a rehearsal is a different animal. To have an orchestra like the Philharmonic up there with you is incredible. They certainly had my back all night and did such a wonderful job. I’ve gotten to know them well in the last year and a half. It meant a lot to feel that energy. It was quite a day.
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