Alsop hits right notes in first appearance

New BSO music director meets dispute head-on

July 21, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Marin Alsop made her first public appearance in Baltimore yesterday after five days at the center of a news media blitz over her imminent, history-making appointment as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra - and opposition among musicians to making an appointment so soon.

Alsop, 48, who will begin her tenure in the 2007-2008 season, quickly acknowledged the publicity and dispute at a news conference.

The New York-born conductor called the Baltimore Symphony "one of the best-kept secrets in the world" that needs to be much better known. "So far, we're doing a pretty good job of creating interest," she said with a smile.

Alsop, the first woman to be named music director of a major American orchestra, began the day at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where she addressed the BSO privately, just before a rehearsal.

"It was my idea," Alsop said in an interview later. "I didn't meet them so I could tell the press. I did it for myself. I wasn't comfortable signing a contract until I could look them in the eye and see if we can make it work."

BSO associate conductor Andrew Constantine described Alsop's speech as "very compelling."

"She acknowledged the tension that existed. And she spoke about being an advocate for the orchestra, nationally and internationally," Constantine said. "She said she needed their support."

Jane Marvine, head of the BSO players committee, replied to Alsop's remarks on behalf of the orchestra. "Jane told Marin that the musicians would always give 110 percent," Constantine said.

Marvine, asked to comment yesterday, said, "She reached out, and we reached out."

After her appearance before the players, Alsop signed the contract, which calls for her to conduct 14 weeks each season in Baltimore. The industry average is closer to 12.

Since the news leaked late last week that she would be offered the job to succeed to eminent Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov at the helm of the BSO, Alsop has been at the center of a dual storm of international press attention.

For achieving another milestone as a female conductor, she was assured attention. But a public, almost unprecedented declaration by BSO musicians that up to 90 percent of the ensemble wanted the search for a new music director to continue put an equally powerful spotlight on Alsop, Baltimore and its well-regarded orchestra.

Alsop addressed the dispute, the future and the making of history as she sat in a quiet corner of an Inner Harbor hotel after a news conference and luncheon with BSO staffers, board members and supporters.

"Today, I'd really just like to forget about it," she said of the more negative aspects of her appointment. "I was getting e-mails from all over telling me, `Run from this place.' But ... I really understood that it was not personal. It got blown out of proportion."

Still, widely circulated reports of specific complaints from musicians about the conductor's rehearsal methods and the quality of her musical interpretations must have hurt. If so, Alsop showed no sign of it yesterday.

"If you have 90 players, you have at least 180 opinions," she said. "Musicians are very strong-minded and opinionated people. For me, conducting has never been a popularity contest. If I ever got to the point where I was beloved, I should probably quit."

During her career, Alsop has compiled an enviable list of concerts, recordings and news clippings. But she is her own "biggest critic," she said.

"I'm sure there are many things about my conducting that can be improved. I want to be a better conductor every time I step on the podium," Alsop said

She will also have to be a skillful diplomat at the BSO, where relations between musicians and management appear to be at a new low.

The extraordinary protest by the orchestra over the music director search "was a warning light about other issues the musicians have that need to be addressed," Alsop said.

"Musicians' lives are very stressful. People on the outside think, `Oh, how nice, you musicians just get to do something you love.' But it's a very intense, pressurized environment. They feel they have no say in their destiny. I think all these elements lined up to produce this bizarre big bang here."

Alsop is principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in England. She was the first woman to head a major orchestra in that country, too.

"In England, it doesn't seem to be as dramatic," she said. "I think the papers wrote one sentence and never mentioned it again. I think maybe it's because there have been so many women in politics there."

But the gender issue never goes away. "I think I might have had my fill by now," she said. "I'm very proud of the achievement but so sad that it's [2005] and there are still many firsts for women to make. I long for the day when I will be the second or the third."

At the BSO, the conductor plans to be involved in the various concert series offered each season. Maybe even pops. "Why not?" she said.

One of her main goals is to develop a distinct profile for the orchestra.

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