"Meet the Maestra"

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Ralph
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"Meet the Maestra"

Post by Ralph » Sat Aug 20, 2005 9:05 am

The Boston Globe
Meet the maestra
Marin Alsop, the world's most prominent female conductor, makes her BSO debut

By David Weininger, Globe Correspondent | August 19, 2005

Marin Alsop is on the phone from Santa Cruz, where she's busy directing the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, a two-week gathering devoted entirely to new orchestral works. She's led the festival for 14 years. It is, she says, ''a place I come to recharge my batteries, in a way. It feels like it's all about the music, and only the music."

This year, more than most, that's a welcome respite. Alsop, who makes her Boston Symphony Orchestra debut tomorrow at Tanglewood, has had one hell of a summer. It started in mid-July, when word got out that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra would name Alsop its 12th music director, making her the first woman to lead a major American orchestra and shattering a seemingly impenetrable glass ceiling.

What should have been a PR dream quickly became a fiasco. A group of Baltimore musicians charged that the search had been terminated too early and wanted to have other candidates considered. The board refused and offered her the job, which she accepted. A bitter and very public feud ensued, one that left her caught in the crossfire. ''It was a little like being in a hit-and-run accident," she says now.

So you can understand why she's relishing the chance to put controversy behind her and be just a musician. Tanglewood, where she'll conduct music by Christopher Rouse, Barber, and Tchaikovsky, figures to be another haven. It already looms large as a key site in her career. She was a conducting fellow there in 1988 and 1989, won the prestigious Koussevitzky Prize, and came to the attention of Leonard Bernstein, who became her conducting mentor.

''After that she just blossomed," says Gustav Meier, a longtime friend who directed the conducting seminar at Tanglewood while Alsop was there. In fact, Meier's description of her musical assets brings to mind those of her famous teacher. ''She has musicality, high intelligence, and tremendous energy," as well as the ability to connect with an audience.

For better or worse, Alsop carries the badge of World's Most Prominent Woman Conductor. ''I certainly never set out to be a role model," she explains, ''but I think that with this territory comes a very healthy obligation, and one that I don't resent in the least." She's established a fellowship for young women conductors, now in its third year, and mentoring is a big part of her professional life. ''I can't ever subscribe to this idea that it was hard for me so it should be hard for you. I just don't believe in that in life, period."

After a string of appointments at smaller American orchestras (in Oregon and Colorado) and guest conducting spots, in 2002 she became principal conductor of Britain's excellent Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. That, and some well-received recordings for the upstart budget label Naxos, signaled her arrival on the scene. It was also the first year she guest-conducted in Baltimore, and both sides took to each other. Or so she thought.

''All I knew was, every time I worked with the orchestra we had a great time, we did great concerts, they always asked for me back for more weeks. I thought, oh, this feels really natural, this is going to be great. And then it was like, what happened here?"

In what was undoubtedly one of the most painful developments in the whole affair, a letter written by one member of the orchestra's board to its chairman was obtained by the Washington Post. The letter, which reportedly included input from musicians, charged Alsop with having led ''dull, even substandard" performances of core repertoire and claimed that her technical limitations left her incapable, in rehearsal, of fixing musical problems, to which she would allegedly respond with vagaries, such as telling the players to ''make magic."

Alsop says she was advised by friends and colleagues not to read the resulting article because they found the accusations wrongheaded to the point of comedy. ''I'm not the kind of person to stand up and say, 'God, I'm just not feeling the vibe' or something. It's just so inaccurate about who I am, and we had some incredibly funny evenings, cracking up about this."

Though she speaks about the incident with distance, she acknowledges the hurt it caused. ''You know, when it started getting like this weird personal thing, I really tried to dissociate from it, because it did feel very, very personal," she says. ''I insisted on having a private meeting with the musicians, and I said, 'Look, I have some really hard feelings about this, but I'm willing to put them aside if you're willing to meet me halfway.' "

As for the players' current views, ''Both the orchestra and Maestra Alsop have been through a painful ordeal," writes Jane Marvine, English horn player for the orchestra and head of its Players Committee, in an e-mail. ''Because of this experience, we expect that both of us will give something extra to our relationship and artistic partnership. The orchestra is committed to securing our future through her vision. Our mutual commitment to passionate music making will undoubtedly have a big impact not only in Baltimore and Maryland but around the world."

Alsop also has a strong vision for the orchestra's future, one that she'll start to implement before she takes over in 2007. For starters, ''I think locally we need to build some bridges to the community." Audiences in Baltimore have dwindled to about 60 percent capacity, she says, while the orchestra carries a sizable debt from building a new hall in nearby Montgomery County. ''It's a wonderful satellite," she explains, ''but I think they really need to go back to their core constituents. I'd like to focus on being the orchestra of the city of Baltimore and figure out how to give everyone in the community access to art music."

Recording for Naxos is also part of the plan. ''I think American orchestras are just starting to get savvy about what British orchestras have known for years -- that making records these days is simply not about making money," she explains. ''It's all about PR and marketing and getting the name of the orchestra [out]. Going on a European tour is so cost-prohibitive these days that the next-best way to do it is through recordings."

Those plans should help address what she feels is the overall goal, ''really trying to find and define an artistic image" for the orchestra, which often finds itself overshadowed by its neighbors in Washington and Philadelphia. ''What we have to figure out is what we can do that will appeal to our audiences but distinguish us from the orchestras around the area."

A conducting career requires a certain amount of resilience even in the best circumstances, and Alsop certainly has it. You can hear a quiet toughness in her voice, along with hints of a New York accent. But there's another quality she considers at least as valuable.

''I think to have a good sense of humor about yourself as a conductor is probably even more important," she says. ''Because when you're standing up there in front of 100 strangers, you have to see the humor in it. I mean, it is pretty doggone funny."
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