Passing the baton

July 22, 2005

THE APPOINTMENT of Marin Alsop as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's new music director has made front-page news and history. That the stage of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall will be home to the first woman musical director of a major American symphony orchestra presents an exciting opportunity for Baltimore and marks another milestone in the 89-year history of the BSO and its artistic evolution.

The 48-year-old New Yorker, an aficionado of contemporary music who likes to chat with her audience from the stage, couldn't be more different than the Russian maestro whom she will succeed - gender notwithstanding. Perhaps that is why she was the board's leading candidate, a vivid contrast in style, musical preference and direction from the podium.

But in choosing to put Ms. Alsop first and score a first nationally, the BSO board also has presented her with a daunting challenge - how to win over the musicians who publicly opposed its decision. Some have likened the relationship between an orchestra's music director and its musicians to a marriage. And if this one is already off to a rocky start, that could be troubling for the BSO.

The organization is $12 million in debt. It must maintain its core supporters while enticing younger patrons to the Meyerhoff, and it's coming up on a new musicians' contract. But in her first public appearance as the orchestra's 12th music director, Ms. Alsop acknowledged the backstage buzz about her appointment and deftly sought to turn it to the BSO's advantage, saying, "So far, we're doing a pretty good job of creating interest, so I hope that we can continue the interest, perhaps on a different level." A clever comeback.

Ms. Alsop, principal conductor for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in England, where she is prized for her skills and repertoire, only signed her three-year contract that begins in the 2007-2008 season after meeting with the musicians. She recognized their concerns and offered that there may well be aspects of her conducting that need tweaking.

Consummate professionals all, conductor and orchestra have time to forge a relationship, one whose quality will be reflected in the music they make. Ms. Alsop has ambitions for the BSO - new recordings, a musical profile that distinguishes it from its colleagues in Philadelphia and Washington. But the job of the BSO's conductor goes beyond music. She needs to be a leader in the arts community, a public promoter of the organization's gifts.

Marin Alsop seems to get it - she's going to make Baltimore her home. It's a new era for the BSO and one that we enthusiastically await.

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