Scandal will suit conductor perfectly

Marin Alsop makes her BSO debut at `Twist' series

May 10, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

I am more of a colleague than a maestro," says Marin Alsop.

That may help to explain her remarkable success since winning the estimable Koussevitzky Conducting Prize in 1989 at the Tanglewood Music Center, where Leonard Bernstein had been her mentor.

Alsop went on to be a guest on the podiums of one major orchestra after another in this country and abroad, and was named music director of the Colorado Symphony in 1993. Next season, she becomes principal conductor of England's oldest orchestra, the Bournemouth Symphony.

Somehow, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra missed out on Alsop's steadily advancing career. But she makes her BSO debut this weekend at the "Symphony With a Twist" series. The program's theme is scandal, which suits Alsop perfectly.

"I think the whole `Twist' idea is great," she says in the conductor's dressing room at Meyerhoff Hall, doing a quick twist of her own on a bottle of diet cola.

"Orchestras sometimes try to find the lowest common denominator with their programs, but this one has some monumental, challenging music in it - Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Barber's Violin Concerto. And I love the idea of doing music that caused a stir or a scandal."

Alsop, 45, knows a thing or two about causing a stir herself. To a certain extent, she can't help doing it.

Although women conductors are hardly unknown - just in Baltimore alone, you'll find the BSO's associate conductor Lara Webber and the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra's founding music director Anne Harrigan - they're still far from plentiful, especially in top posts at leading ensembles. And they still tend to make news on the basis of gender alone.

Alsop, for example, will enter the music history books as the first woman at the artistic helm of a British orchestra when her Bournemouth tenure starts.

She takes all of this in stride.

"I think back to the first time I conducted," Alsop says. "At the end, one of the guys came up to me and said, `I never noticed you were a girl.'

"Maybe it's best to de-gender the issue. If you're devoted and doing your best, that's all [musicians] want."

What orchestra managers and boards of directors want, at least in this country, brings up a different issue.

"They think anyone foreign is better than our own conductors," Alsop says. "So maybe being an American is more a hindrance than being a woman. There is this archetypal image of a figurehead - the older white male with an accent."

In England, Alsop gets to be the one with the accent. Her new Bournemouth position follows stints as principal guest conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and City of London Sinfonia. Her work has garnered enthusiastic reviews in the British press.

"I have felt a tremendous sense of connection to British musicians," she says. "They've been extremely embracing.

"American orchestras tend to be run as a big business, more in a corporate kind of way. In England, even the top orchestras have a certain collegiality."

The fact that the New York-born, Juilliard-trained Alsop is an experienced orchestra violinist no doubt is an asset in dealing with players. Another plus is her straightforward attitude.

"She is the perfect conductor for this day and age," says violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who has collaborated with Alsop for two decades and will be her soloist at the BSO this weekend. "She is extremely efficient and has no ego problems. ... And there isn't any kind of repertoire she can't do."

Alsop, who is due back with the BSO next season to lead a jazz/gospel version of Handel's Messiah "that's way out there," is as at home in Beethoven and Mahler as in Bernstein and Rouse. Her recordings of Barber's orchestral works on the Naxos label with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra - three more are due - have generated considerable praise.

Alsop's strong affinity for jazz still has an outlet with String Fever, an all-woman swing band she founded in high school.

And her musical inquisitiveness includes delving into authentic approaches to very old music; she's taking baroque violin lessons from period instrument specialist Andrew Manze.

"The only problem is finding time to do everything," Alsop says. "I feel very privileged to be in this business today."


What: "Symphony With a Twist"

Where: Clarice Smith Center, University of Maryland, College Park (tonight); Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. (tomorrow)

When: 8 tonight (Clarice Smith) and tomorrow (Meyerhoff, with jazz and refreshments in the lobby at 6:30)

Admission: $20 to $40 (Clarice Smith), $26 to $68 (Meyerhoff)

Call: 301-405-2787 (Clarice Smith), 410-783-8000 (Meyerhoff)

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