Alsop goes off the cuff with Tchaikovsky program of music and a talk


November 20, 2008|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,

Marin Alsop is back in town for her first Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concerts since last month's sensational production of Leonard Bernstein's Mass that won over audiences and quite a few critics in New York and Washington, as well as right here. The conductor will lead two performances of a full-length program this weekend at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, as well as introduce a new series there called "Off the Cuff."

This latest BSO product has Alsop's name all over it. The concept is simple: one work of music, preceded by a discussion of it, all packaged together in 90, intermission-less minutes or less. Not exactly revolutionary, but few conductors have Alsop's flair for public speaking and getting listeners interested in what they are about to hear.

Saturday's inaugural "Off the Cuff" is devoted to Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, known as the Pathetique, an emotionally searing piece that turned out to be his swan song.

"I will speak probably a good 20 minutes about Tchaikovsky as an artist, his conflicts and personality, what he would have been like to sit down to dinner with," Alsop said the other day, in between preparations for her debut at the National Press Club luncheon in Washington on Monday. (Her topic was arts education.)

"I'll go through the Pathetique - not really analyze it, that sounds pretty dry - and talk about the orchestration, the compositional techniques. And how it revolutionized the [symphonic form]. The orchestra will play examples. I'm looking for a conversational, not-overly-scripted experience for people."

After the introduction, Alsop and the BSO will perform the Pathetique complete. With a 7 p.m. starting time, the audience "will be out by 8:30 and can still go out and have dinner," the conductor said.

If folks are not in a hurry, they can linger after the performance for a Q&A session with Alsop.

Three more programs are in the "Off the Cuff" series, including a look at Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in January and Copland's Symphony No. 3 in April. Alsop will lead those two sessions. Guest conductor Peter Oundjian will guide one in February addressing all the questions posed by Elgar's Enigma Variations.

For tickets to Saturday's Tchaikovsky-centered "Off the Cuff" at the Meyerhoff (1212 Cathedral St.) or the rest of the series, call 410-783-8000 or go to

The Pathetique will also figure in the BSO's concerts tomorrow and Sunday at the Meyerhoff, sharing a program with Christopher Rouse's Concerto for Orchestra, receiving its East Coast premiere at these performances.

Dedicated to Alsop and unveiled at her Cabrillo Festival in California over the summer, the new score "is a virtuoso piece for the orchestra as a whole, for sections of the orchestra and individual instruments," the conductor said.

"It is not a typical, accessible piece. It is a major listening experience for people," Alsop added. "What attracts me to Chris' music is that he is able to put the world we live in into a musical piece, from the extreme violence to intimacy. There can be despair, there can be hope. And there's a passage in the Rouse Concerto almost identical to a passage in the Pathetique. I was highly amused to discover that."

Alsop is a longtime champion of the Baltimore-born and -based composer. "I take great pride in the fact that I hold the record of being the only conductor to do an all-Rouse program," she said. Perhaps she'll add to that record with such a program in Baltimore some day.

By the way, Alsop is not through with Bernstein's Mass. She just returned from discussions in London for a major new production there of the groundbreaking work next season.

And back to the Alsop-Rouse connection: She has been named Conductor of the Year, and he has been named Composer of the Year by the 2009 Musical America Awards, announced Tuesday. The awards, which will be presented next month in New York, are among the classical music industry's most respected honors. Musical America is the publisher of the annual International Directory of the Performing Arts. On the Web, is a major source of daily arts news.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma has been named 2009 Musician of the Year, joining a luminous roster of recipients that started in 1960 with Leonard Bernstein. Other 2009 Musical America Award-winners: mezzo Stephanie Blythe (Vocalist of the Year) and Pacifica Quartet (Ensemble of the Year).

Gypsies, tramps and thieves at Towson

Members of Towson University's voice faculty - soprano Theresa Bickham, mezzo Leneida Crawford, tenor Tony Boutte and baritone Phillip Collister, with pianist Karen Kennedy - will team up for what sounds like a most diverting program this weekend.

Put together Brahms' Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs), excerpts from Johann Strauss' The Gypsy Baron, Bizet's Carmen and Menotti's The Old Maid and the Thief and you've got a night that sounds like Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves." The singers even plan to offer an arrangement of that hard-to-forget (no matter how hard I try) pop song.

The concert is at 3 p.m. Sunday at the university's Center for the Arts, Osler and Cross Campus drives. Tickets are $5 to $12. Call 410-704-2787 or go to

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