Applause for Alsop's first season



June 29, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Earlier this month in Denver, a hearty ovation greeted the dynamic cast after a performance of Opera Colorado's visually and musically potent production of Nixon in China, the minimalist masterpiece by John Adams. But, had an applause meter been in place during the curtain calls, it would have registered the biggest surge of clapping and cheering for the last person to walk onstage, someone who had not sung a note - Marin Alsop.

This wasn't just a case of a local audience acknowledging a longtime favorite, although Alsop is certainly that, having served as music director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra for 12 years in Denver, a place she still calls home. Denverites weren't the only folks in the audience on this particular night at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. A lot of the attendees came from elsewhere; they were in town to attend the massive National Performing Arts Convention, a gathering of more than 3,500 people representing the worlds of opera, symphony, choral music and more.

So, in a way, the reception accorded the conductor after that absorbing performance seemed like more than just an acknowledgment of her musical skills - and she was in peak form as she expressively molded and shaded the hypnotically churning elements that fuel Nixon in China. It suggested a kind of reaffirmation of her status and stature in the American cultural arena.

Alsop, who just wrapped up a successful inaugural season as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is very much at the forefront of that arena today. People all over want to hear what she has to say, not just what she happens to conduct.

At the National Performing Arts Convention, it was Alsop who shared the spotlight for one of the primo events, a one-on-one conversation with Jose Antonio Abreu, the Venezuelan visionary who created the music education and social involvement phenomenon known as El Sistema that has hundreds of thousands of youths playing in orchestras throughout his country.

Significantly, one of Alsop's notable achievements in her first Baltimore year is the launch of OrchKids, an ambitious, El Sistema-inspired educational program in a Baltimore school. Another Alsop goal, honing the talents of promising conductors, led to the establishment this season of a conducting fellowship run by the BSO and the Peabody Conservatory.

That sort of commitment and follow-through has become an early hallmark of Alsop's tenure here. She's willing to put herself on the line and in the thick of things. She takes in the big picture and the smaller pictures. She identifies priorities. She gets people motivated. She gets things done.

She also makes music, of course, and in that vital area she has also put a firm stamp on the BSO after a single season. The sound of the orchestra has changed, at least to my ears. It's leaner, sometimes lighter in tone than it was in the best years with her predecessor, Yuri Temirkanov.

It's also more tightly controlled. In terms of articulation, Alsop prefers to keep things very neat, disciplined and clear (not that there's anything wrong with that). When it comes to interpretation, I've noted before that she colors within the lines, while Temirkanov and some other conductors tend to be freer with tempos and phrasing.

I didn't always find Alsop's approach totally persuasive or terribly involving this season, especially in the case of Beethoven, whose symphonies formed the foundation of the programming. There can be something impersonal or detached in the conductor's interpretations, a sense of reluctance to commit emotionally, to really let go, to dig far beneath the surface of a score.

That said, there is never any mistaking Alsop's seriousness of purpose, her clarity of thought and, above all, her ability to generate vitality.

This led to quite a few peaks this season. Those included surging performances of standard repertoire by Dvorak, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, and commanding accounts of contemporary fare by the likes of John Corigliano, Christopher Rouse and Joan Tower.

There were also such surprises as a presentation of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, with Alsop leading the BSO in an endearing performance of the filmmaker's original score.

All season long, the orchestra came through vibrantly for their music director, and that speaks volumes about the initial and potential strengths of Alsop at the helm.

Maybe it was just as well that she and the orchestra had their crisis of faith before she ever took that helm, back in 2005, when her appointment led to public dissension by players. With all that behind them, everyone could jump into the new regime in a more refreshed state of mind. The rapport onstage was evident in concert after concert.

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