One lucky guy

Classical musician Sir Clive Gillinson arrived on our shores for the latest stop in his littering career – and is now an Honorary Fellow of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

The multi-talented, Bangalore-born Clive Gillinson (photo credit: CHRIS LEE)
The multi-talented, Bangalore-born Clive Gillinson
(photo credit: CHRIS LEE)
There can’t be many people around with a more informed view of the global classical music arena than Sir Clive Gillinson. The 72-year-old, Bangalore, India-born, New York-resident Brit has an experienced handle on the performance and administrative side of the sector, as well as being responsible for putting together repertoires at one of the world’s most prestigious concert facilities.
Gillinson was in Jerusalem last week to pick up yet another award in a still-evolving long, glittering career: He was named an Honorary Fellow of Hebrew University’s Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. The new title joins an impressive personal honors list that includes a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) and a knighthood, as well as the 2004 Making Music Sir Charles Grove Prize for his outstanding contribution to British music.
Add that to an Honorary Doctorate from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia in May 2007, and a post on the Honorary Board of the Brubeck Institute of the University of the Pacific, and you wonder if Gillinson can actually find room for the new kudos on his living room or office wall.
The academy honchos – specifically, board of governors joint chairs Amina Harris and Yair Green, and academy president Yinam Leef – noted Gillinson’s role in “promoting excellence in music performance and inspiring new artistic horizons for the world’s most prominent music and cultural venue.” The latter references New York’s Carnegie Hall, where Gillinson has served as artistic director and general manager for the past 13 years.
He is also an accomplished cellist.
GILLINSON IS no stranger to these shores, not by a long shot.
“My first visit to Israel when I was in the National Youth Orchestra [of Great Britain], as a kid. I was 16 or 17, I think,” he notes from his hotel in Jerusalem. How fitting that Gillinson’s initial, personal, connection with Israel came about as a result of his musicianship.
In fact, his bond with this part of the world was formed even before he was a twinkle in his parents’ eyes, and the musical link stems was established in an earlier generation.
“I am Jewish. My mother was here during the [Second World] War,” Gillinson explains. “She left Europe in ’36 and came and lived here from 1936 to 1945. She was a fantastic cellist and she played the Dvorak [Cello] Concerto [in B minor] with the Palestine Orchestra, as it was called then.”
The ensemble, founded by Jewish Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, was the precursor to what was to become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
“My mother played chamber music with Huberman,” Gillinson continues, adding that although he did not quite see the light of the pre-state Palestine day, he was, in a way, around these parts at the time.
“So the association [with Israel] is very strong. I was, in fact, conceived here. My father was here, on leave, from the British army – they were in Iraq. He met my mother here and they got married just at the end of the war. So, there are a lot of associations which are quite personal.”
Following his teenage foray here with the National Youth Orchestra, Gillinson maintained his professional attachment with Israel, and helped to contribute to the local cultural scene in other capacities, too.
“I brought the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) out here twice, once at the end of the Gulf War. I think it was the First Gulf War, when [Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein was sending Scud missiles over and trying to draw Israel into the war.”
That was not a fun time for anyone here, and there wasn’t too much in the way of extramural leisure-time activities on offer back then.
“Cultural life had completely stopped at that period.
Then a [Israeli] promoter contacted orchestras all over the world to see if any orchestra could come here, to help start cultural life up again. That was in April [1991], and we sort of turned our schedule upside down and raised the money within weeks and brought the LSO out here. We had Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. It was a very moving experience.
So, yes, I have a number of associations with Israel.”
Considering Gillinson’s long and deep relationship with this Israel, and his musical bond with us, he presumably is more than a little pleased to receive the award from the academy.
“I’m thrilled,” he says. “My only sadness is that it would have meant so much to my mother, but she’s not here any longer. Just in terms of her own life, this would have been something really important for her as well.”
Although Gillinson has not been involved with workings of the academy over the years, he has a longstanding relationship with one of the people responsible for bestowing the Honorary Fellow award on him.
“I have known Amina Harris for a very long time, and her dad was very helpful when we brought the LSO over here at the end of the Gulf War. So there has been a connection through them.”
In addition to periodically providing Israeli audiences with top-class classical music, Gillinson says he has regarded the development of the sector here with ever increasing appreciation.
“I have always been an admirer [of the quality of classical music in Israel]. The level of music and music-making here is high, obviously including the Israel Philharmonic itself. But there’s a lot more. It has always been impressive to me, and it’s an important part of world music.”
GILLINSON’S OWN professional continuum is pretty impressive, too. He is uniquely qualified to pass judgment, should he be so disposed, on the classical music scene across the globe.
“What has been so fascinating for me has been moving, unintentionally, from being a player into management.”
It was, he says, simply a matter of happenstance.
“I’d never thought about management. It wasn’t something I was interested in, so it was really chance.”
That, and a downturn in the LSO’s fortunes following its move in 1982 to the Barbican Center, opened the door to what was to prove a sustained career move, and he became the ensemble’s managing director.
Gillinson says he didn’t have a lot of competition for the position.
“The London Symphony Orchestra ran into terrible financial problems. The manager was sacked, the orchestra was on the verge of bankruptcy. I have the feeling that no one wanted the job,” he chuckles.
“They certainly couldn’t get anyone they wanted.
They thought they’d get a player from the orchestra to go in temporarily. That was the only reason I went into management. It was definitely not an aspiration. In fact, it was something I knew I didn’t want to do, until I ended up doing it. It was just one of those ironies.”
Reservations notwithstanding, Gillinson duly took over as manager and, by all accounts, was a resounding success. He stayed in the job for more than 20 years before crossing the pond. That, he believes, may be down to having an intimate, and personal, appreciation of the life and needs of the orchestra members.
“Music is something that has always been at the center of my life. Therefore, being a musician was a huge advantage when I shifted from being a player to manager.
I knew nothing about management, so it [my experience as a musician] was the one strength I had.”
It would not be stretching matters too far to say that not only has Gillinson’s playing backdrop been a boon for his managerial capacity, he would probably recommend that all orchestra managers should have some personal knowledge of what it takes to be a professional musician.
“It has been of fundamental benefit, in terms of relating to conductors, soloists, all the people you want to work with. To be talking to them as a musician, rather than as an administrator, is a huge advantage. So, when I took over at the LSO, I could go to [legendary Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav] Rostropovich, or [Hungarian-born British conductor Sir Georg] Solti or [French composer and conductor Pierre] Boulez – all people we brought into the orchestra then. One of the challenges at the time was that we didn’t have a great many important conductors conducting. As far as I was concerned, the most important thing you ever do is get the greatest conductors.”
If anyone was going to get those illustrious figures on board the then-rickety LSO train, it was Gillinson.
“To go to those people and talk to them as a fellow musician, that was a huge advantage. You are speaking the same language.”
Gillinson still had a bitter taste in his mouth from adverse dealings with administrators who had no idea what made musicians tick. “Often managers would be talking to you as a player, let alone talking to great conductors, and they weren’t able to relate to you as a musician.”
GILLINSON HIMSELF almost ended up in a very different line of work, and actually started out on a different instrument.
“My mother said I should learn the piano, because the piano was much more useful, as she saw it,” he recalls.
But it wasn’t to be.
“I struggled with it for about three years, but I hated the piano, had no aptitude for it. I’d never have become a musician had I stayed with the piano. I always knew I wanted to play the cello. I never genuinely knew whether it was because of her [being a cellist] or whether I loved the cello. But you can’t necessarily separate these things.”
The youngster made the transition to cello at the age of 11 and never looked back. Even so, when it was time to take up higher education he took a degree in mathematics. Unlike the piano, it was something Gillinson really liked.
“My two main big loves were music and mathematics.
Actually, I loved carpentry too, which sort of led to me having an antique business for a while.”
It was hard-earned maternal wisdom that guided the teenager to a degree in mathematics.
“The only reason I went into mathematics was not because I didn’t want to do music, it was because of my mother, having been a musician in a world which, at that time, was where the men got all the jobs. She was better than most of the men, but they got all the jobs. So in her view, musician was not a very nice profession.
It wasn’t if you were a woman at that time.
She said I should do the mathematics and do the music for fun.”
But the academic arrangement didn’t last long.
“I realized, almost immediately, I’d made a mistake so, after a year, I packed it in and music has been my life ever since.”
AFTER MORE than three decades on the management side of the classical music sector, Gilligan seems to have lost nothing of his enthusiasm for the job and for keeping the genre’s flag flying as high and robustly as possible.
“I am incredibly optimistic about the state of classical music,” he declares. “It starts from the music itself. Classical music includes some of the greatest creations of the human race. When people talk about the demise of classical music, to me that’s as bizarre as saying people will stop reading Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or stop going to see Shakespeare plays. All of those things are unthinkable, and classical music is not different in that sense.”
Then again, there are serious challenges to be redressed.
“Things with schools have changed so much,” he observes. “Around the world, the arts were once more central to the way education was perceived. In Britain, when I grew up every child was able to learn an instrument for free, when music and the arts were part of the curriculum in a much powerful way than they are now – in England or America and lots and lots of places. That side of things I think is a huge concern.”
By now, it was clear that Gillinson could not stay down for too long.
“To me, the huge positive thing about today that in the long term is going to be even more important, is the commitment of every arts institution to ensure that those who don’t normally have the opportunity, have access to the arts as part of their mission.”
Gillinson has been putting his money where his mouth is for years, championing educational programs and targeting youngsters to make sure they have the best possible chance of making the professional musical grade. He is not looking for state institutions to provide the necessary support, in financial and other ways, to make this happen. He feels it is healthier, and ultimately more sustainable, to make the music sector as robust as possible from within.
“Artists themselves are now feeling they have a responsibility. I think that in the long term, we are moving toward an era where the arts will be much more organically part of the society in which we grow up. I believe that is more sustainable as an underpinning than governments who will flip one way or the other. For five years you’ll have a government that says the arts are fundamental, and the next five years it’s really writing and arithmetic and the arts are peripheral.”
Gillinson is clearly up for all the challenges that lie ahead, and feels he has led a charmed life.
“I’m just incredibly lucky to be at Carnegie Hall. In terms of the contribution one can make to people’s lives through music, there is no institution that can do more. As far as I am concerned, I am a very lucky guy.”