With her appointment as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007, Marin Alsop became the first woman to head a major American orchestra. She is also the first woman to record the complete cycle of Brahms symphonies (Naxos) and to record a Mahler symphony (the Fifth) with a major orchestra (LSO Live). From 2002 through 2008, Alsop was principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony in the United Kingdom. In 1989 she was a student conductor at Tanglewood, where she worked with and learned from Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa. Her interest in Brahms, Mahler and Bartók is coupled with a passion for American composers — Barber, Bernstein, Gershwin, Glass and others; most recently, she released an acclaimed recording of John Adams’ Nixon in China with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (Naxos), where Alsop is conductor laureate. It was in Colorado where Listen caught up to Maestra Alsop by phone. She had been rehearsing with the CSO for performances of Too Hot to Handel, her gospel version of Messiah.
So tell me a bit about Too Hot to Handel.
This is an idea I had, oh gosh, a long time ago now, in the early Nineties, of updating Handel’s Messiah. So I got a couple of arranger friends of mine on board and we went through the whole piece and talked about each number and treated it differently. It’s a different orchestration — it’s got a big rhythm section with Hammond B-3 organ and gospel piano and five saxes and full brass and strings. So it’s totally wild. It’s on iTunes if you want to have a listen.
I’ll check it out. Are you still playing jazz violin?
No, not too much. I just don’t have the time, unfortunately.
With Concordia [Alsop’s fifty-piece orchestra founded in 1984], you championed American repertoire that included jazz. Do you think jazz is something you can bring to the podium at Baltimore?
Well, I think I have already to a certain degree; we did Too Hot to Handel there last week. I try to do programs that cross all kinds of boundaries because I think that’s an important component, or addition, to what we do. Standard repertoire is my meat and potatoes — like every maestro — but there’s only so much of that ‘product’ that audiences can really support, and then we have to think outside the box and do different kinds of things. This big Gershwin project we just did with Jean-Yves Thibaudet is a good example of crossing boundaries. And I’ve done some projects with the tap dancer Savion Glover and these kinds of things — it’s really fun!
Is there a time coming when we’ll see Ellington and Monk earning a place within the classical repertoire?
I think they definitely have a place already. I think in the last twenty years, it’s emerged and grown toward a far less rigid and bounded field. When I was doing Concordia, the term ‘crossover’ hadn’t even been coined yet. Nowadays this kind of eclecticism is — I wouldn’t say commonplace, but certainly more common. The idea of integrating Ellington into a subscription concert, these are things I do all the time. And I do meet some resistance, but not usually from our listeners. [Laughs.] I think listeners — you know, the young people today — are so eclectic in their listening habits. They’ll download a movement of Vivaldi next to a pop tune, and as long as everything is well performed and the music is valid, I see no reason why these things can’t live side by side. There’s that famous quote from Duke Ellington: ‘There’s only two kinds of music: good music and bad music.
‘Vivaldi next to a pop tune’ reminds me of the Bernstein Mass —
— a piece which has historically had trouble with the critics, but you seem to be making quite a case for it. What is it that attracts you to this work?
Well, I think it was really misunderstood when it premiered, and it has been misunderstood for, I think, decades. People looked at it and listened to it very much from polarized vantage points of ‘Oh my God, that’s a rock ’n’ roll song next to a twelve-tone meditation’ and ‘How is that possible?’
I think, again, with the crumbling of the walls — appropriate with the Berlin Wall celebrating the twentieth anniversary of its fall — with the blurring of boundaries, people are really able to listen to this piece now not as a shocking genre mixture, but rather as an integrated, through-composed, brilliantly, skillfully written theater piece, which is what it is and what it was intended to be, instead of being jarred by the vernacular, you know? And it’s a piece with a tremendous storyline, with a tremendous message, a piece that has endured and grown in meaning over the decades. I think it’s a lot easier to make a case for the piece today than it was in ’71 when it premiered, because people would have gotten hung up on his audacity to juxtapose these genres and mix them up and blur the boundaries. I think that would have been very upsetting to the listeners, or certainly the critics, as we know.
Why is it that Bernstein took a hit for this polystylistic piece while Berio and Schnittke were lauded for similar approaches?
Yeah, well, neither Berio nor Schnittke wrote West Side Story — and that says it all, you know. Bernstein got typecast early. Nobody could give him a break and allow him out of the box. And I think there’s probably some envy that someone from the classical world could write a multi-million-dollar hit musical [laughs] and revolutionize American musical theater. I’m sure it’s probably a complex question, but Gershwin experienced the same thing: when you come at something from the popular end rather than the serious end, it’s hard for people to take you legitimately. You don’t have the gravitas. I don’t understand that at all, but that seems to be traditional.
Bernstein was a great educator. Boulez brought his avant-garde to his audience. You have been a great champion of American music. Is this what you hope for your legacy as a conductor?
Hmm. Well, I hope it would be to bring a special perspective to a range of repertoire, from the Brahms symphonies with the LPO [London Philharmonic Orchestra] all the way through Dvořák with Baltimore and John Adams’ Nixon in China. So I hope that it’s bringing some kind of special connection with the composer, regardless of the era or the nationality.
I think American music has played a big role in my career for any number of reasons, not least of which is that it was a good entrée for me. I mean, I was passionate about it, that’s the first important element, of course, always. But it was a way to begin in Europe, because I am American. I’m very wary of this xenophobic stereotyping — that if you’re French, you can do French music. I know a lot of American conductors who don’t do American music particularly well, but do German repertoire beautifully.
And also my relationship with Naxos, which developed early in my career, led me in that direction. They were just embarking on their American Classics series, so the first major recording cycle I did was of Samuel Barber. I’m still wildly in love with that music, so it was a win–win on every level.
I try not to think about legacy too often, but when I do, I hope it’s not terribly narrow, let’s put it that way.
We have to look at our orchestras as evolving to new places, and in future orchestras, musicians are going to need to employ additional skill sets besides just playing the notes really well.
I imagine in Europe that you’re twice-branded as an American conductor and as a woman conductor, but it doesn’t sound like you feel pressure to push certain repertoire because of that branding.
No, not at all, and I think what was an entrée became an advantage, because then on my second appearance, my third appearance with orchestras I was able to branch out. Particularly in Europe, particularly in the U.K., I’m not actually very well known for American music at all. [Laughs.] It’s interesting how careers develop.
Do you see your American and European careers as parallel universes?
Well, I don’t think my American career is typecast anymore either, now that I have a big canvas in Baltimore, but I’m very proud and pleased to promote the American music that I feel passionate about just like the contemporary British and German music I feel passionate about. I think you have to follow and champion the composers you feel a deep connection with and profound commitment to.
You’ve clearly also felt a deep connection to Mahler. How has your relationship changed with the Mahler symphonies over the course of your career?
I think my relationship with Mahler is probably the most consistently changing relationship I have. I find Mahler to be absolutely fascinating on many levels. Of course, I have that very superficial connection to Mahler through Bernstein. Maybe it’s not that superficial: Bernstein really felt that he was the direct descendant and the true ambassador for Mahler’s music, having brought it back to Vienna and just exploring it so much in depth over his lifetime.
So I saw Mahler first through his eyes, and then, going to the next level, connecting to Mahler through my own eyes and my own experience, I find that Mahler is a composer who really encapsulates so much of not only who I am, but who we are in history as a human race — the idea of self-exploration and, perhaps sometimes, self-indulgence. And pushing the envelope, yet remaining connected to our heritage and our popular elements. There’s so much in Mahler, and every single Mahler symphony for me is a very complete journey of some kind. I find it a very, very satisfying experience.
You had a bit of a rough transition coming into the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which you obviously conquered, and I hate to even ask you about it now because I know it’s old news and can be tiring to revisit, but why still does it remain overwhelmingly a man’s world behind the podium?
[Sighs.] Well, I think it might be slightly disingenuous of me to attribute all the pushback to the gender issue. I think in Baltimore there were some specific challenges and issues that the musicians had tried to deal with, with very little success. I think a lot of the pushback was not personally related to me but more about process and being heard and feeling frustrated. So it’s a complex issue; suffice it to say that I was able to depersonalize it and try to assess the situation to figure out how I could be most helpful to them, and ultimately I was successful with that.
But that said, I do think that there are big issues still facing women in ultimate leadership positions, whether president or a music director. In their own world, these represent the ultimate authority. And I think society is still not accustomed to that. And so I don’t think it’s a particular matter of prejudice — I think that has too many strong connotations — I think it’s just simply a matter of lack of conditioning. People aren’t accustomed to something, so they don’t gravitate toward it, and it makes them uncomfortable. So I think that’s really more the case. But I do — I don’t know, I said this twenty years ago — I do think it’s changing.
But classical music is also a very slow-moving, conservative industry, as we know. So it’s sort of like dog years: I think for every year of society moving ahead, it takes classical music at least seven years to get up to speed.
A few years ago, you said that you can’t ‘get a complete picture by listening to someone for twenty minutes behind a screen.’ You were talking about blind auditions. I found that to be quite a progressive view of the audition process. Do you think we are at last at a place in the United States where we can do away with the blind audition?
You know, you would hope so, wouldn’t you? I don’t think so, though. And I don’t think it necessarily is gender-related. I think it’s that we’re such a visual society and we human beings are so trained to respond to visual stimuli that I think it’s really hard to be objective. My ideal would be to combine the anonymous listening process with an interview after you’ve narrowed it down. And maybe that’s what the probation process is about. But I do think we have to look at our orchestras as evolving to new places, and in future orchestras — in my opinion, anyway — musicians are going to need to employ additional skill sets besides just playing the notes really well. Looking toward the next decades, I think we’re going to need to be more involved in the community, more involved in promoting what we do, explaining and curating what we do, so I see the next evolution as an evolution in participation, rather than people coming to consume music and it being rather passive. I think there’s an active element that needs to be ingested into what we do.
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