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The Maestra Tunes Up

Marin Alsop, distinguished visiting artist at Peabody and the first female music director of a major American orchestra, is determined to make symphony orchestras hip. Don't bet against her.

By Dale Keiger

Opening photo by Grant Leichton Marin Alsop resolved to become a symphony orchestra conductor in 1965. She was 9 years old and it was pretty much a snap decision. Her parents had taken her to see Leonard Bernstein conduct the New York Philharmonic, and by the end of the concert she knew what she wanted to do. All over New York City, 9-year-olds were making career choices: astronaut, fashion model, fireman, physician, shortstop for the Yankees or Paul McCartney's girlfriend. But Alsop, who last year joined the faculty of Peabody Conservatory, seems never to have wavered from her early ambition.

Which is how, mid-morning and mid-rehearsal with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra last June, she came to be addressing the trumpet players. She was leading the musicians through Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 4, which they would perform that night. After telling the ensemble, "In the coda, two bars before letter Q, if you feel that I'm pushing it's because I am," she turned to Andrew Balio and Rene Hernandez in the brass section and asked, "Trumpets, how quiet can you play it?" As they tried the section again, Alsop put her finger to her lips, asking for even softer. Then she stopped and raised her baton once more, to hear the trumpets really soft. In an inspired moment, as Alsop cued them Balio and Hernandez lowered their horns and did not play at all. The orchestra laughed. Alsop, with just enough grin to let them know she got the joke, said, "Perfect."

The 50-year-old Alsop is not the first woman to conduct a major orchestra. Before her were Nadia Boulanger and Antonia Brico in the 1930s; Sarah Caldwell, Iona Brown, and Jane Glover in the 1970s; and beginning in the 1980s Sian Edwards. But on September 28, when she gives the downbeat for John Adams' Fearful Symmetries, she will inaugurate her first season as the first woman ever appointed music director of a major American orchestra. In June 2005, after word leaked that she would be offered the job in Baltimore, there were moments when it seemed she would not get here. In a much-publicized display of recalcitrance, the orchestra's musicians responded badly to news of her selection. The Washington Post quoted a letter written by a BSO board member who claimed that "90 percent of the BSO musicians oppose her appointment." The musicians on the orchestra's search committee formally requested that the search continue. From outside, it was hard to tell if the players' disenchantment actually was with Alsop, or with the orchestra's management in general. But something had gone really wrong.

At the Tanglewood Music Center in 1988, Alsop's hero Leonard Bernstein made her his protégé. Alsop's first response was to consider friends' advice to run away as fast as she could. Instead, she flew to Baltimore, walked into rehearsal, and laid out her vision of the orchestra to the players. When the symphony's board of directors offered her the job, she took it. Whatever the musicians thought of her at that point, they couldn't say she shied from a challenge. The BSO was a mess. Not musically — under outgoing music director Yuri Temirkanov, the orchestra had proven capable of sublime artistry. But as an arts organization it was a shambles. The orchestra had not issued a recording in eight years. Its management had run up a $16 million deficit. Some nights it played to a half-empty Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, and its status as a full-time orchestra was in peril.

Now, as it approaches the September 28 opening night, the BSO, if not yet robust, shows signs of new vigor. It has new, experienced senior management. Its board made the risky decision to spend down nearly a third of its $90 million endowment to wipe out the deficit and give it an operating cushion. Two years past an unpromising beginning, Alsop seems on cordial, productive terms with the musicians. Unlike her predecessor, she has worked to become part of Baltimore's cultural community and reach out to audiences. She has invited other arts organizations to set up displays in the Meyerhoff during concerts, and arranged for high school students to attend BSO rehearsals. She has made the orchestra's music available from the online iTunes Music Store and XM satellite radio, and begun a cycle of Dvorák recordings that will put new Baltimore Symphony CDs on the shelves of record stores for the first time in a decade. For 2007-2008, she has assembled an eclectic, intriguing first season of concerts, and the public has responded by subscribing in significantly increased numbers. No one knows if they have subscribed for the fresh new programming, because the orchestra heavily discounted ticket prices, or out of interest in Alsop. But her former conducting teacher, Gustav Meier, now her colleague at Peabody, is betting on her. "She will have a great future," he says. "And the future is here now."

Alsop is brisk, efficient, smart, and tough, and can be impatient if she thinks her time is being wasted. She's also articulate, self-deprecating, and funny. Though she's been asked some questions again and again — What accounted for your rocky beginning with the orchestra? Are you concerned about aging concert audiences? — she has a knack for never sounding rehearsed, and a gift for quick rapport with an audience. She frequently takes up a microphone to address the crowd, and often appears on stage after concerts to field questions from anyone who wants to hang around and talk.

The afternoon of the Fourth of July, she strolls through Baltimore's Harbor Court Hotel. The BSO's annual outdoor holiday concert is imperiled by approaching thunderstorms, but there's not much she can do about that as she sits down to talk about a new season of music. By this point, she has been working on the 2007-2008 season for about 10 months, and she knows how much is at stake. She dryly concedes that one possible gain from the controversy over her appointment is that everybody in Baltimore with the slightest interest in the symphony now knows that she's come to town, and some of them might be sufficiently curious to attend some concerts. But if the orchestra is to play for fuller houses, it must present programs that bring audiences back for more, not just this season, but next season and the season after that.

Alsop describes programming partly as working a big puzzle. By way of the musicians' artistic committees, she heard about soloists and guest conductors who have performed well with the BSO. Then she had to see who from that list was available, and when, and begin scheduling concerts. Of more consequence, she felt the season needed a defining concept, something that would begin to establish what she wanted as the BSO's identity. "Why would anyone think of the Baltimore Symphony before they think of Philadelphia, the National Symphony [D.C.], or New York?" she says. "It's probably not going to be because we can outplay Philadelphia or New York, although I think on a good day we can. I think the defining feature is going to be what kind of experience people have when they come to the hall. That has to do with programming and vitality and feeling connected."

"If you want to be a conductor, I think the one attribute you have to have, besides being uncommonly hardheaded, is to persevere no matter what." The guiding phrase for 2007-2008, Alsop decided, would be "new perspectives." And at some point — she doesn't remember exactly when — she had an idea that she knew right away was a good one: Throughout the season, perform all nine Beethoven symphonies, each one paired with works by contemporary composers like John Adams, Joan Tower, Thomas Adès, and John Corigliano. What's more, four of the composers on her list — Adams, Adčs, H K Gruber, and James MacMillan — are also skilled conductors. Why not bring them to Baltimore to conduct a Beethoven symphony each? She says, "Who needs another Beethoven cycle? You almost can't think of anything more conservative. But the way we're going to do it is going to be so radical, I think it's going to be fantastic. It's going to be all the Beethoven you know and love, but presented by the living Beethovens of our time so you get a new perspective, a new insight. Programs like this will define the orchestra and set it apart." Further defining the BSO, she planned a lot of contemporary music, with 11 composers coming to town for performances of their work and conversations with audiences. There would still be Mahler and Brahms and Tchaikovsky and Schubert, but also Tan Dun and Christopher Rouse and Steven Mackey. As part of her outreach strategy, each of those 11 present-day composers will appear at Baltimore's Theatre Project for hour-long "Composers in Conversation" programs to talk about their work, their influences, contemporary composing, and what the BSO will be performing the next night.

The orchestra announced Alsop's first season with a subscription booklet that included 13 photos of the maestra, leaving no doubt about how much was riding on her. (The booklet also includes her iPod playlist. Top of the list is the Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready to Make Nice.") She has been urgent about maximizing every opportunity for the orchestra. Though she says she has become more patient in the last few years, she adds, "Probably everyone at the BSO staff would say, 'You have got to be kidding.' Soon they'll be running as soon as they see me coming, because I have so many ideas and such high expectations and I just want to go go go. But there's a certain point where it's enough already." Gauging that point will be a challenge. A few weeks earlier, in Rockville, Maryland, at the Music Center at Strathmore, the BSO's second concert venue, Alsop had attended a one-day symposium on conducting organized by the Smithsonian. She told the audience that after the controversy following the announcement of her appointment, "everybody knows who we are now. Everything we do has to be absolutely drop-dead amazing, because everybody is looking at us."

At that symposium, Alsop delivered a short version of her biography.

On her nativity: "I think my parents thought they should be a trio, so they'd make a pianist, which is how I came into the world. Piano was my first instrument, when I was 2, and I retired when I was 6. Then they sort of tricked me into playing the violin."

On Alsop family life: "I'm the only child of professional musicians. When I was accepted at Yale, my parents were the only parents who said, 'Good grief, why would you want to go there when you could go to Juilliard?'"

On parental support: "It's important for a younger person who wants to be a conductor to get musicians to play for you. My parents were hugely supportive. They always played free for me."

On motivation: "If you want to be a conductor, I think the one attribute you have to have, besides being uncommonly hardheaded, is to persevere no matter what. I'm the kind of person who, when I'm told I can't do something, I feel highly motivated to do it."

Marin Alsop's biography, the longer version:

Her mother, Ruth, is a cellist. Her father, LaMar, is the next-to-youngest of nine children from Salt Lake City. As each of his older siblings took up a musical instrument for a while then discarded it, he learned to play them all: violin, viola, saxophone, clarinet, flute. (He eventually settled on violin.) He could also whistle. Older readers may remember a television commercial for Irish Spring soap that used whistling behind the sales pitch. The whistler on that soundtrack was LaMar Alsop. His daughter recalls, "He used to whistle theme and variations on everything. It was very annoying. Then he started making more money whistling than anything else." Ruth and LaMar played in the New York City Ballet orchestra (Ruth still does), where he was concertmaster.

When Alsop was 18, after two years at Yale she transferred to the Juilliard School as a violin performance major. A year later she applied to Juilliard's conducting program. When the conservatory said no, she still sat in on master conducting classes and played in practice orchestras so she could study the student conductors. She supported herself as a freelance violinist, all the while nurturing her desire to become a conductor. She performed with the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Ballet, a string quartet, a piano trio, a string orchestra, and a swing band called String Fever. She played recording sessions. In 1984, when she was 28, to gain experience and notice as a conductor she founded her own orchestra, Concordia, which performed under her direction for 18 years. About this time, Tim Page, now The Washington Post's classical music critic, hosted a radio program in New York on WNYC. He remembers her from when she appeared on his show: "She came in and she was this sort of adorable kid with these big wide eyes. Very, very young, very nice. I liked her."

Still intent on becoming a conductor, Alsop applied to the exclusive summer conducting program at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts. Four times she applied, and four times Tanglewood rejected her. Her response was to apply yet again, and on the fifth try she got in. There she worked with Gustav Meier, Seiji Ozawa, and her hero Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein took her on as his prot&eacaute;gé and she excelled. Page says, "She was definitely the star among the students, and Bernstein seemed especially fond of her. She made the most of it, which is what you do when you have a legend taking you under his wing. It was obvious she was talented, it was obvious she could be very charming, and it was obvious she was just fiercely ambitious."

The new maestra believes part of her job is to make the BSO not just newsworthy, but hip. "Challenging,
isn't it?" she says. "Like making your grandparents hip."
Meier recalls being immediately impressed by her energy and analytical intelligence. "She was always very studious. She always wanted to get to the bottom of a composition. She wanted to know what Brahms was thinking at a particular bar, how this symphony compares to other symphonies and other composers." What she most needed, he says, was to believe in herself. "It's a scary thing to stand before 70 to 100 musicians who have 10 times as much experience. How do you dare to stand in front of this group and tell them how to do it?" Her 1988 season was so successful, Tanglewood invited her back for the following summer, something it rarely does. That year, she became the first and only woman to win the Koussevitzky Conducting Prize, which Tanglewood revived just so they could award it to her.

Meanwhile, she had begun her climb as a conductor, gaining prominence from orchestra to orchestra: assistant music director of the Richmond Symphony in Virginia, then music director of first the Eugene Symphony in Oregon, then the Long Island Philharmonic, then the Colorado Symphony in Denver. In 2001, England's Bournemouth Symphony appointed her principal conductor, and at the end of her first year the prominent magazine Gramophone named her Artist of the Year and she won the Royal Philharmonic Society's Conductor Award. No one had ever won both in the same year. In 2005, not long after she was named music director in Baltimore, she became a MacArthur Fellow, the first conductor so honored.

When he came to Baltimore in 2000, Yuri Temirkanov was named to the faculty of Peabody Conservatory. But after the press conference announcing his appointment, he probably never again set foot on campus. No sooner did Peabody make Alsop a distinguished visiting artist then she began teaching master classes at the conservatory. She also brought the Peabody Symphony Orchestra to the Meyerhoff for a performance with the BSO of Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony and established the BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellowship to train a new generation.

For years, Alsop has invested herself in teaching younger conductors, especially women. In 2002, she and Tomio Taki, an apparel executive who had helped her launch the Concordia Orchestra, established the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship to train young women conductors. As director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, California, Alsop established the Cabrillo Conducting Workshop. Meier, now director of Peabody's graduate conducting program, notes her instinct for watching a student and understanding what he or she feels and wants to convey. "She has a Geiger counter for what's in there," he says. "It's hard to get inside [a student], to figure out what the gestures mean about how the person relates to the music. But she has the intuition and the skill."

Rei Hotoda, assistant conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, met Alsop at a Concordia workshop in 2002, and was a Taki Concordia fellow in 2006. "I loved her teaching instantly. She was very direct and she knew exactly what to fix and how to fix it. She's very tough on herself, but also tough on me. She has high expectations. She's tenacious, and I love that."

When Hotoda first heard of her mentor's appointment to the BSO, she was thrilled: "Wow, a beacon of light!" Then she read about the controversy. She says, "I thought, 'Why is this happening?' I was with her that summer, and I could see she was really upset. It hurt her personally. But I knew she would pull through. I knew she would just cut through the noise, and she did."

When musicians, conductors, composers, and others in the classical music business speak of Alsop, a word that recurs is essence. Klaus Heymann, founder of Naxos, the recording label that will begin issuing BSO CDs later this year, says, "What I like most about Marin is whatever she does, it always sounds right. No extremes of this, no extremes of that. She's always got the essence of the music right." Composer John Adams says, "You want someone who understands the essence of what you're saying as a composer, and who can communicate that essence to an orchestra, and an audience." When Alsop first conducted a piece of his in Denver, he says, "I thought she was brilliant."

The essence of her conducting, say those who have followed her, is her sense of rhythm and her ability to meld an orchestra into a single instrument. Violin soloist James Ehnes, who has performed concerti with her, says, "Sometimes an orchestra just sounds like a bunch of people playing at the same time, in a nice harmony but still just a collection of voices. She creates very much a unified orchestral sound." James Jolly, editor of Gramophone, observes, "I think she's got an incredible sense of rhythm. That's something a lot of American conductors seem to have. She can infuse the music with dance rhythm, rather in the way that Bernstein could."

After a rough beginning, Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's musicians seem on harmonious terms.

As she rehearsed the BSO during the early summer, the painstaking business of getting the sound she wanted was on display. She requested more articulation on a set of eighth notes, different bowing from the strings, a slight space before the downbeat at rehearsal mark 293 in Dvorák's New World Symphony. The right accents here, perhaps softer sticks for a tympani part there, and bassoons, listen for the clarinets because they have a sixteenth note before that downbeat in the Korngold violin concerto. The musicians seemed loose and focused at the same time, concentrating when they needed to but at ease with their new boss.

Alsop says, "Because of the events surrounding my appointment, I think I actually got to know the issues the orchestra was suffering with far more quickly than I would have otherwise. Every trauma and hardship they'd been enduring for so many years managed to manifest itself and explode in that cathartic moment. It was obviously a challenging time, but I think it made me very aware that I need to be a strong advocate for them."

Tim Smith, who reviews the orchestra for the Baltimore Sun and has heard Alsop conduct during her season as the music director designate, says, "We would all hear by now, and there would be plenty of reports, if there was anything like there was a few years ago. [The musicians] can see tangible results, and whatever happened has pretty much been put aside by now or they wouldn't be having such effective concerts."

In the end, of course, what matters is the music. Temirkanov set a high standard. Tim Page of the Post recalls concerts of Temirkanov's with the word "incandescent." As a musician, Alsop will be graded on the steep curve set by her predecessor, and that will be a challenge. But no one discounts her energy, her ambition for the BSO, her ability to connect with audiences, or her flair for programming. Page is excited about her first season. "Oh, it's terrific. It's so much the most interesting season that Baltimore or [the National Symphony in] Washington have done since I've been on the beat."

Will it bring audiences to the concert hall? So far, the orchestra reports, season subscriptions are up 15 to 20 percent, with three times the number of new subscribers as last season. Local press has been paying more than the usual attention to the orchestra. This summer, three Baltimore magazines all had profiles of her in progress simultaneously, and during one brief stretch Alsop had interviews with 10 journalists on her schedule.

The new maestra believes part of her job is to make the BSO not just newsworthy, but hip. "Challenging, isn't it?" she says. "Like making your grandparents hip. I think it is hip, though, that's the weird thing. Look at how hip art is now, at least in my opinion. Opera is pretty hip now, how did that happen? I never expected opera to get hip. It isn't because opera has changed. But the packaging certainly has changed.

"I hope that in 10 years — I hope much sooner — there will be a culture of joy here. That sounds awfully trite in a way, but I think what we do is a joyous and profound experience. People need to be connected with that."

Dale Keiger is associate editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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