“We’re approaching the whole thing modestly,” Gilbert says. “The important element is how we can connect to the city, the community and, indeed, the whole of west Tennessee. Ultimately, it’s about the possibility of reaching across the footlights and meaning something to the audience.”
Among the contributors to the Eroica Ensemble are Gilbert’s wife, violinist Yoko Takebe; their children, Alan Gilbert, who serves as music director of the New York Philharmonic, and Jennifer Gilbert, the concertmaster of the Orchestre National de Lyon; and Michael’s brother, sister and nephews (the extended Gilbert clan includes more than a dozen professional musicians).
The family element is fitting, as Eroica represents the realization of a philosophy that began with Gilbert’s father and the family patriarch, Noel Gilbert. A native of Scotts Hill, Tenn., the elder Gilbert was the son of a country fiddler who became a noted violinist and an educator (he was also a regular contributor on recordings by Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes and Al Green) devoted to expanding the cultural reach of classical music.
Starting in the late 1940s, Noel began conducting free summer concerts in the park in Memphis, and, after retiring from his job as violinist for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, he established the Germantown Symphony Orchestra and the Memphis Civic Orchestra. In an embodiment of the phrase “like father, like son,” Michael took these actions to heart. “I was always connected with that idea; the notion of putting something back into the community along the lines of what my dad did,” he explains.
Following Michael’s own retirement from the New York Philharmonic stage, he finally got the chance. After making the decision to return to the mid-South in 2007, he and a small group of family and friends decided to launch Eroica. Gilbert envisioned the ensemble as being both a training orchestra and a way to bring music to the community. Quickly growing from a two- to four- to 14-concert season, the program is now an artistic jewel and a creative hothouse for both professional and up-and-coming musicians, complete with its own conducting workshops and lab orchestra.
“We’re trying to be a place where older musicians can come and share with some of the younger professionals and the students,” says ?Michael’s nephew and Eroica’s executive director, Anthony Gilbert. “It’s become an amazing exchange.”