NPR host to lend his voice to BSO production

March 14, 2010|By Tim Smith | tim.smith@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

Scott Simon, the mellow-voiced host of National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition Saturday," and Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, have a mutual admiration society going. Something like 4 million people hear it whenever the two are on the air together.

That will happen again this Saturday morning, when Alsop makes another of her frequent appearances on Simon's show to discuss classical music, but this week, Alsop gets to return the favor. She's invited him to be on her program - a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program, that is.

The Peabody Award-winning Simon, a 33-year veteran at NPR, will serve as narrator for one of the best-known works in the repertoire, Sergei Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf." It will be performed as part of the BSO's monthlong series of circus-inspired programs. This one will feature John Corigliano's wild, noisy "Circus Maximus," complete with marching bands and a 12-gauge shotgun, so Simon's smoothly modulated tones will be all the more useful for giving the concerts some contrast.

"I have narrated [ Aaron Copland's] 'A Lincoln Portrait' a few times, and I know how to take cues," the Chicago-born Simon, 57, says, "but that doesn't mean I will be totally confident when the audience is looking. I've never done 'Peter and the Wolf.' I'd be an idiot - I'm often an idiot - to assume that I can just stroll in there and do this correctly."

Alsop has no qualms about her choice.

"I have to confess I'm the one who said let's get Scott to narrate 'Peter and the Wolf,' " the conductor says. "I think he's fantastic. This is an extraordinarily capable human being."

"Peter and the Wolf" is more typically played for kiddie concerts; its vivid folk tale is set to brilliantly descriptive music meant to introduce young listeners to the sounds of an orchestra. But the BSO's circus theme is partly about reawakening the child in all of us - and, in this case, rediscovering a classic. "The story is a little darker than I remember it," Simon says. "It's not Elmer Fudd. It has all the elements of a great Western in there."

Prokofiev's text has been recited by a who's-who of celebrities over the decades. "I am most familiar with the versions by Peter Ustinov and Cyril Ritchard, and that's intimidating," Simon says.

For the BSO's performances, Alsop has chosen a slightly different version.

"We're going to do Leonard Bernstein's narrative," she says. "It's slightly more descriptive; he personalizes it all. This is the narration I grew up with as a kid. It was my introduction to Bernstein. I had a plastic phonograph and played his 'Peter and the Wolf' recording day in and out. That's probably why my parents hate the piece."

NPR is scheduled to record some excerpts from the BSO's final rehearsal Thursday to be used on a segment with Alsop and Simon for the next "Weekend Edition Saturday."

The association of these two personalities goes back a few years.

"We didn't come to Marin Alsop because we were looking to do [classical music segments]," Simon says. "Before she was appointed Baltimore Symphony music director, someone said to me that she was utterly fascinating to talk to, and we should try it. It took off immediately."

Simon does not approach his radio sessions with Alsop from the perspective of a huge classical music fan.

"I do love the ballet," he says, "and, of course, that includes some of the most beautiful music ever written. But my own tastes are more Broadway, West End show music and country music. People think I know a lot more than I do about classical music; Marin makes me sound good."

The conductor calls her arrival in Baltimore "serendipitous," because it put her in close proximity to NPR's Washington studio.

"The way we operate is very loose; it's a comfortable association," Alsop, 53, says. "Whenever I'm on the show, Scott does surprisingly few retakes. It feels as alive as it possibly could."

Audiences in Baltimore and elsewhere know well Alsop's gift for commenting from the stage, her dry humor, enthusiasm and clarity when describing a composition. That concert-hall rapport carries over easily to the airwaves.

"The segments with Marin work so well because she has this rare - if I might put it this way - Bernstein-ian gift not only for understanding music and giving it an inspiring and beautiful presentation, but also being able to talk to civilians. All I do is tee up the ball for her. If Marin had decided to come on and talk about ice hockey or embroidery, someone would have said, 'Let's make this person a regular contributor.' "

Alsop returns the compliment.

"Scott is deeply knowledgeable in so many areas," she says. "He's fascinating to talk to. His wife [Caroline Richard] is French. They adopted two girls from China. I could listen to Scott talk about his two kids forever. He just lights up. And his books are spectacular."

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