Marin Alsop: A New Perspective

Marin Alsop
Marin Alsop

Frank J. Oteri: I’m glad we’ve finally been able to speak to each other on camera. You are incredibly busy, and you’re traveling all over the world.

Marin Alsop: It’s wonderful, but it’s like the old adage, you have to be careful what you wish for. I think the only downside to what I do is the travel schedule, which is pretty grueling.

FJO: You just flew in from London. Have you recovered from jetlag yet?

MA: I do it so frequently. It comes upon me now and then, but it’s really not a big issue.

FJO: At this point, what is the balance between your guest appearances and performances you do as the music director for various orchestras?

MA: These days I really limit the guest conducting I do, because I have so many commitments. I have my new post with the Baltimore Symphony, which in this coming season will take at least 14 weeks plus weeks off the podium planning. And I’m finishing up in Bournemouth, so that’s six weeks there. And then I have regular relationships that I want to continue with and cherish with the London Philharmonic and the London Symphony. So I try to limit my guest conducting to orchestras that I either have been looking forward to working with but haven’t been to yet, or orchestras that I know are a fantastic musical experience. So I’d say that probably at least 60 percent of my time is with my own orchestras now, and that would leave 40 percent for guesting.

FJO: When you guest, how much influence do you have on music programming?

MA: It depends, of course, on the orchestra and whether you have a history and relationship with the orchestra already. I always try to put forth something with a little bit of an edge to it. In terms of edge, I mean including something they don’t know, because it makes a more interesting program and a more complete experience for the listeners and the musicians. Whether they’re open to it or not depends on the orchestra and the season and what’s going on, but I generally have a pretty high percentage in terms of programming new works.

FJO: Of course, one of the main reasons I’ve been wanting to talk to you for NewMusicBox is because of the great many American works that you have programmed over the years and your tremendous advocacy for contemporary composers overall. Someone who might not know about how this all works might think that to program an American work in America should be fairly easy, but actually it isn’t easy a lot of the time.

MA: I first came to American music really through my interest in jazz. As a violinist I had a string band called String Fever with all my friends. I fell in love with American music, particularly music from the ’20s and ’30s, when the popular and the serious idiom combined to create what—in my estimation—is really an identity for American music. That’s how I got interested in it originally. And when I started my own orchestra in New York as a fledgling conductor in my early 20s, I thought: “Wow, this is a great repertoire profile and I’d really like to carry that as far as I can.” So with Concordia, I was doing something that I think has become quite ordinary over the years, which is I wanted to try to dissolve these barriers between the serious and popular idioms, and it’s basically the pre-crossover idea. That’s how I started getting involved in American orchestral music, and particularly music being written by American composers of our time. My interest went from James P. Johnson’s orchestral music and George Gershwin—I revived Blue Monday, an opera he wrote 12 years before Porgy and Bess—all the way through Samuel Barber and Copland and Bernstein, up to Chris Rouse and John Corigliano and Joan Tower. That’s really the spectrum of what got me started.

Then, I think there are some typical qualities of American music that just appeal to me viscerally. I think it’s the rhythmic drive and the immediacy of a lot of American music. I really like the quality of what you see is what you get. I think that’s the kind of person I am. So I felt a real affinity for this repertoire. And I really want to say that I’m not of the belief that you have to be an American to do American music well, or because you’re an American you naturally do it well. I think people have certain relationships with music that are intrinsic, and for me American music feels that way. It was a natural outgrowth for me to then take that on to my wider professional career, and it’s proven to be a win-win for me and the composers and especially the audiences and the musicians.

FJO: It’s interesting that you began your list with James P. Johnson. He’s celebrated as one of the great early jazz pianists, but to this day few people realize that he also composed quite a lot of orchestral music and operas.

MA: In the late ’80s, I read about a concert of James P. Johnson’s orchestral works, and I thought, “I didn’t know this guy wrote music for orchestra!” This music was performed once in the 1940s at Carnegie Hall, and then no one could find it. I love these kind of projects: to try to find music and to revive it. To make a long story short, after about six years of research and connecting with his relatives, we actually found this music. Some of it was in good shape; some of it had to be reconstructed. Most of it had to be re-copied, and there was a little bit of re-orchestrating. With Concordia, I teamed up with the folks at Lincoln Center Jazz (what it was called at that time), and we did a whole program of James P. Johnson’s music. And we recorded the works for MusicMasters on a disc called Victory Stride. I’m sure it’s out of print now. But the most important thing for me was that I published all the music for him, and for his family, and it’s actually played by orchestras around the world. The music is performed especially on family and educational programs because it’s very accessible; it’s lively and entertaining. When there are celebrations during Black History Month or Martin Luther King Day, often they’re looking for new repertoire by historical black American figures, and his music comes into play there. I’d love for it to be part of the wider repertoire eventually, but I have to say that it is available and if people search they can find it. I haven’t played the repertoire in a while, but it’s a funny coincidence: I just did Victory Stride in England. I tell you, everybody flipped out. All the musicians wanted more. I have a few CDs left so I sent over a couple of copies to them.

FJO: Another composer you’ve helped to bring back into contemporary consciousness is Edward Joseph Collins whose music I think is remarkable and all too little known.

MA: That’s a really interesting story. I came to know Edward Collins’s music though his now deceased daughter. It’s so convoluted. It’s one of those things where people know you’re a violinist, so they say, “I have a Stradivarius in my attic.” If they know you’re a conductor… His daughter, Maryanna Collins, loved the New York City Ballet, where my parents worked, so I got to meet her, and she said, “Oh, my father was a composer; would you look at his scores?” I said “Sure.” This happens frequently. But when I looked at these scores, I thought, “This is really interesting stuff.” So, with Concordia again, my very first orchestra that I founded, we recorded one disc of his music. And that got my appetite going for his music, and then later his estate came to me and said, “Would you have an interest in recording all his orchestral music?” At the time I was principal guest with the Royal Scottish Orchestra, and we were doing a huge Samuel Barber project. So it felt like the right moment, the right orchestra, the right situation, to just dive into this entire catalog. And it’s pretty big. We recorded about seven discs for Albany Records, and we’re now putting together his opera, so we’ll see how that comes out.

FJO: You mentioned Samuel Barber. He’s certainly not obscure; he’s a name that many people know, and the Adagio is one of the most frequently performed pieces in all of classical music. But, ironically, people don’t know a lot of his music beyond that. He’s somebody whose music ought to be standard repertoire, but it isn’t. Why isn’t his music performed as regularly as music by Dvořák?

MA: I think with the music of Barber, just like with the music of contemporary composers whether they’re American or not American, I think it’s the responsibility of us as conductors to program these works into standard programs we do, and insist upon them. It’s not as though it’s going to be detrimental to us in any way. If you program strong works, the musicians and the audiences love it. They all have these incredible discoveries. So I just did Barber’s First Symphony in London recently with the London Philharmonic, and the musicians went crazy for it; they loved it. It’s so rewarding. It’s written beautifully for the instruments. It’s emotionally satisfying. And it was so interesting because all of the London musicians said, “I guess this is played all the time in America.” And, unfortunately, I had to say quite the contrary. It’s rare when Samuel Barber’s First Symphony is programmed. And so it’s just a matter of trying to champion the things you believe in. And I also find that when you program works like this alongside things like the New World Symphony or other standard fare, it really highlights the standard repertoire in a new way. Our audiences can hear things with a new perspective. And for me that’s what the excitement is about, this idea of looking at the old through a new lens. When I go to museums I want to see a disparate selection of artists; I don’t like to see all this or all that. That’s not what I enjoy; I like the contrast and the sense of stylistic challenge that you get from looking at something new and then looking at something that you’ve seen before. Because then you start to listen, you start to listen, and you start to think differently.

FJO: En route here this morning, I walked by a building on the corner of 57th Street and 8th Avenue. They started building it right before the Depression, and it was supposed to be a skyscraper, but when the market crashed it couldn’t be completed, so for years all that was there was the art deco base of the building. But just recently floors were constructed over it in a completely different architectural style. Seeing those two styles together in one building makes both of them stronger than either of them might have been on their own.

MA: Right. That’s really my philosophy and what I try to bring to the programming I do and just a general vision for orchestras in the 21st century.

FJO: It’s funny to hear that British musicians thought Barber’s First Symphony is done here all the time. In Finland, they play Sibelius all the time. You wouldn’t think of having a program of classical music in Germany and Austria that did not include something from the Germanic tradition. In England, Elgar’s music gets done all the time. Yet when American music gets done by someone in America, people who program it regularly still get described as American music specialists rather than just par for the course.

MA: That’s an interesting stereotype that I’ve had a little personal experience with since I do champion American music, and not just American music but contemporary music. As you see from my repertoire, I just champion composers I believe in. James MacMillan and Thomas Adès are two of my favorite composers right now, and they’re both British. But I think that conductors are so reluctant to program new music to begin with, so if 10 percent of your repertoire is contemporary music then you’re automatically a specialist. There’s a rush to codify and categorize people. I think it’s certainly not restricted to just music; this is in every field. Everyone likes to put a quick label on something. I can imagine as an actor if you do a successful series, it would be so challenging to break out of that mold. But in terms of American music in the concert hall, I would say that Copland holds that mantle in terms of which composer would be analogous to Sibelius in America.

FJO: Copland is an analogous figure and to some extent so is Barber, but at this point in history neither of them are “contemporary music” yet they are somehow lumped together with contemporary music rather than being considered standard repertoire pieces at this point. Certainly many of their works were contemporaneous with pieces by Sibelius, Bartók, and others that are now part of the canon.

MA: There are two divisions that often aren’t separated: one is American music and the other is contemporary music. I think because in America we didn’t really come into our own until the 20th century in terms of having a musical identity that was known internationally. And certainly even then it was pretty dubious as to whether we believed we had our own musical identity. Therefore, American music is by definition 20th century, so then that becomes synonymous with contemporary music.

Of course, it’s inappropriate for a composer like Barber, although having recorded all of his music, I have to say I became enormously impressed with the range of compositional style which to me rivals that of Stravinsky. And the same thing is true with Copland. His interest in pushing the envelope stylistically and coloristically in every way was really amazing. Because again, like I have experienced, composers are also categorized. Barber is known for the Adagio, period, the end. Copland is known for Fanfare for the Common Man. And so Barber’s Cello Concerto and Piano Concerto are rarely performed. You know this is absolutely shocking to me: I did the Philadelphia premiere of the Barber Cello Concerto—I don’t think it was in 2000, maybe 1999—with the Curtis Institute Orchestra. It had never been performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Barber taught at Curtis. So that gives you a sense. But maybe that goes back to what you were saying that perhaps in America we don’t cherish what is inherently American enough. But I see that in every walk of life, not just in music and the arts. I think it requires that we as Americans start to value ourselves more and really focus on what the strengths that we have are in a greater philosophical sense. And then we can focus specifically on things. The sense that if something comes from far away it has to be better is a very typical human response. Whereas if you look around at the architecture and the art and the music we have in America, it’s formidable. And not just in the major urban centers, everywhere.

FJO: But I also think that part of the problem stems from the fact that it’s rare that a major orchestra or opera company will select an American-born conductor or a conductor who has been based in America for many years and will instead choose someone from overseas. That’s changing more and Baltimore selecting you is evidence of that. Of course, at the time all the headlines read “First Woman Conductor Chosen to Lead Major U.S. Orchestra” and that was thrilling, but more importantly, they chose an American conductor who champions composers who are here. For me, that trumps the gender issue, which I feel is important, too, but looking far away for this music is a big part of why it is not relevant to most people living here.

MA: I think this issue of American music directors or the lack thereof goes back again to our sense of being really embryonic in our development. We have a slight inferiority complex still to this day. We’re still at the dawn of feeling a sense of pride and solid foundation in American music. And I still think there’s an underlying nervousness that somehow American-trained conductors can’t be as steeped in the tradition. It’s almost a sense of royal or genetic hierarchy. If you haven’t descended from the descendants of the descendants of the descendants, then you can’t be royalty and you can’t have the affinity, which I think is completely bogus. But I do understand where it comes from in a way. And classical music is a very conservative, slow-moving industry. And I think there’s a reaction often when one goes to appoint a music director, or perhaps when the times are a little bit tentative and changing. Either you hunker down and you just go back to what you’ve been doing for a hundred years and do it even more with your head in the ground, or you take a chance. Those are the options. We have to allow orchestras to change, to streamline, to present concerts in new ways, to think of new kinds of repertoire-based programs. We have to start to change and this is an industry that’s very reluctant to change. We’ve done it this way forever and we’re going to keep doing it. And I know that that’s a natural human trait, but as people get more comfortable and have more success they’ll be more willing to try things.

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