New BSO director brings swift change

Even before her official debut, Marin Alsop's plans include tackling relevant, contemporary works

Fall Arts Preview / / Classical Music

September 03, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,[Sun Music Critic ]

Technically, Marin Alsop doesn't start her tenure as Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director, succeeding Yuri Temirkanov, until the 2007-2008 season. That's the first one she will have planned completely, the one likely to draw a great deal of outside attention.

But Alsop is hardly going to wait in the wings until then, twiddling her batons, a remote music director-designate. As BSO associate conductor Andrew Constantine puts it, "Marin doesn't do stagnation."

The orchestra's marketing trumpets the '06-'07 season as her first ("Don't let history pass you by," the subscription brochures warn), and lots of folks are apt to think of it that way, even though she won't actually appear with the BSO until January.

Alsop, the first woman appointed music director of a major American orchestra, is already "very much a presence in the minds of all the staff at the BSO," Constantine says. "She's a very necessary catalyst to the orchestra's growth at a time when, industrywide, people are feeling very nervous about the future."

Even a cursory glance at the orchestra's calendar reveals that catalyst in action. "The 2006-07 season bears an unmistakable flavor of what Marin Alsop is about as a conductor," says Constantine.

The flavor in the programming is bound to shake things up around here -- the orchestra will perform at least 20 pieces for the first time.

"By the time I came on board, things were pretty well sketched out for the season," Alsop says. "But when other programming opened up, I tried to encourage the orchestra to consider things that hadn't been played so frequently."

Alsop will be on the podium for six weeks' worth of concerts (more than twice that much in '07-'08); Temirkanov, now music director emeritus, Constantine and guest conductors will handle the rest.

But, as a result of serendipitous scheduling, Alsop will leave an imprint on the wider music scene this season, beyond the BSO's venues, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore and the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda.

She makes her Washington National Opera debut this month in a high-profile assignment at the Kennedy Center. "A really great coincidence," Alsop calls it. "I had already accepted the opera dates a couple years ago, before I was ever approached by the BSO."

Of course, there will be plenty of noteworthy things going on that are unrelated to Alsop. (There's a sampling of season highlights on Page XX.) But, from a broad-view perspective, she stands out as the big news, the big promise of this about-to-start season.

"I think Marin coming to Baltimore is tremendously exciting," says Hajime Teri Murai, director of orchestra activities at the Peabody Institute. "She's going to challenge all of us."

Re-energizing force

As Murai sees it, Alsop is all about "making music relevant to us, finding out how to ensure that this great art form will connect not just to people today, but generations to come. She wants to re-energize all of us in the audience. It's an exciting journey she's going to be taking us on."

A key factor in that journey, and a big reason for Alsop's ever-expanding international career, is her hearty embrace of contemporary music. So it's not surprising that her Washington debut is with the North American premiere of a potent opera from 2002 by British-born composer and Peabody faculty member Nicholas Maw, Sophie's Choice. Talk about a relevant work of music.

Nor is it surprising to see that Alsop's programs with the BSO this season will include one devoted entirely to the music of Philip Glass, the celebrated master of minimalism, a composer long ignored by the orchestra. The BSO has performed only one work of this Baltimore native, in 1986, but never a note at Meyerhoff. Talk about a journey.

That program offers Glass's Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and a multimedia creation with National Geographic photographer Frans Lanting called LIFE: A Journey Through Time. (This will be on the BSO's aural / visual Explorer Series, which I expect will look less amateurish -- and cheap -- than it did last season, when the series made its debut.)

Other unusual fare on Alsop's BSO plate includes a concert featuring tap dancer Savion Glover (you can't get much more novel than that).

Music and nature

And sprinkled throughout the season, in programs led by Alsop and others, will be a good deal of repertoire reflecting the recurring theme of the BSO's season -- music and nature, from Handel's Water Music to Messiaen's Oiseaux exotiques (Exotic Birds).

Two of the biggest nature pieces will be on Alsop's plate: The Dharma at Big Sur, a work for amplified violin and orchestra by John Adams; and An Alpine Symphony, a suitably massive work by Richard Strauss.

The latter will feature members of the Peabody Symphony Orchestra alongside the BSO, creating a super-sized ensemble. Alsop credits the idea for the Strauss blast to Peter Landgren, the BSO's associate horn player, who served as Peabody's acting dean last year.

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