Marin Alsop: A New Perspective

Marin Alsop
Marin Alsop

Frank J. Oteri: Well to talk about your upcoming first season in Baltimore a bit, I think it’s amazing that you’re beginning your tenure by performing John Adams’s Fearful Symmetries. I think that sends a loud and clear message about your mission.

Marin Alsop: It’s one of my favorite pieces and John Adams is a very good friend and someone I respect tremendously and someone whose music I adore. He felt like the right person for me to invite to participate. He’ll be at the concert. He’s going to follow my week conducting the orchestra in his music and kicking off a Beethoven symphonic cycle I’m doing. Five of the symphonies will be conducted by living composers. We’re going to make it a festival and have these composers in town. You can’t get more traditional and almost emblematic of classical music than these nine pillars of Western civilization, but I want to look at those from a new perspective. What better way to talk about the Beethoven symphonies to our audiences than through the eyes of the living Beethovens. Thomas Adès is coming, and H.K. Gruber, and Joan Tower and Chris Rouse. I really want my audience to hear from them. I think that’s the philosophy behind this opening season for me in Baltimore. People are going to have the things that they love—like the Beethoven symphonies—but they’re going to have new insights into them, and they’re going to be able to access them in new ways. It’s not just having living composers talk about them. I’m also doing a two day experience called “CSI Beethoven,” where I’m having scientists from John Hopkins who are going to come and talk to my audiences about Beethoven’s declining health issues and his hearing loss. They’ve even simulated the decline of his hearing so that our audience members can listen in the way that Beethoven would have listened. And the whole orchestra will play excerpts. To me this is what art is about; it’s about getting involved and feeling that you’re on the ground floor. When I go to a museum, I enjoy looking extemporaneously at all the art work, but when I have an expert take me through, then suddenly a whole new world is opened to me. That’s what I want to do for my listeners in Baltimore.

FJO: It’s interesting that you said: “Give them what they love, the Beethoven symphonies.” But, of course, now at the beginning of the 21st century, there are so many people out there who don’t necessarily know the nine Beethoven symphonies, and in fact don’t necessarily know or love any classical music whether it’s Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, or Joan Tower and H.K. Gruber. To someone who doesn’t know any of this music, it’s a level playing field. Joan Tower is the same as Beethoven.

MA: That’s what is really interesting about the time we live in, when everyone has an mp3 player. Young people will download a piece by Vivaldi they heard because they’re interested in it while they’re downloading the most radical stuff going on, so there’s an eclectic quality to the listening. And I think a lack of pre-judgment, which to me I think is the most exciting part of classical music right now. Everybody is open to ideas. So how do you get them in the concert hall to experience it? That’s the next challenge. I think one way is by programming things that have some sort of curation to them so it’s not intimidating. But then you also have to look at things like prices of tickets. That’s something the Baltimore Symphony has done in spades. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of their hall, the Meyerhoff Hall, they got underwriting to the tune of 1,000,000 dollars so that every subscription ticket, every seat, every concert, is 25 dollars. Now I think we already have 1000 people who never attended the Balitimore Symphony coming to this first season. And if they come they will come away with an experience that is of great value, and hopefully they’ll come back.

FJO: Now Cabrillo, where you have served as music director since 1991, has also made affordable pricing a primary goal.

MA: One of the main concerns of the musicians when I first started at Cabrillo was that the audience was quite small. So I really gave a lot of thought about how to program to get people in. But I think ticket prices really make a difference. My management team there re-priced the entire auditorium and consequently we have sold-out houses there. And there’s one free concert that we do. But the concerts at Cabrillo are really a different kind of experience. Santa Cruz is really a time warp: it’s kind of a hippie, groovy, surfing town with highly educated PhDs living there. So it’s a real contrast of styles, and it’s all about quality of life and being involved in what’s going on. So Cabrillo is a place where I’m able to invite composers, and they talk to the audience. We have all this interactive stuff going on. The musicians are formidable. They come from all over the United States. They’re not paid; they’re only given a per diem. These are professional musicians who could be doing anything else, but they come because they love contemporary music, and we put together four huge orchestra concerts, and they really dig being with the composers. It’s fantastic. This summer alone I think we’ll have 13 composers in attendance. And they have lunch with the audience. It’s more than a concert experience. It’s kind of a way of life to me, because it’s about enjoying every dimension of something, not just packing in things and checking them off your list. It’s about really experiencing something in the moment. I think that’s something we get separated from in our lives and that’s what I’d like to enable people to come back to.

FJO: One of the other things that you’ve initiated at Cabrillo is working with a young woman conductor who has received the Taki Concordia Fellowship. I was very moved by the essay on your website about the need to train conductors and how—unlike instrumentalists who can practice by themselves in practice room—a conductor must be in front of an orchestra. But how do you get new faces in front of an orchestra if orchestras are so reluctant to pick somebody young and from here?

MA: This was the challenge for me in transitioning from playing the violin as a professional musician into conducting. It was so daunting in a way. You go from being in the top echelon of what you do to being the lowest-rank beginner when you stand on the podium because you can’t actually practice conducting until you get in front of at least 40 people. And I also was under this false assumption when I got started and was about 25 that maybe in 10 years there’ll be a lot more women in this field certainly. But looking around even a couple of years ago, it’s really about the same number of women. It hadn’t grown exponentially as I had thought it would. And I wanted to try to help young conductors in general and then women conductors specifically.

So in 2002 I started the Taki Concordia Fellowship. I wanted to keep the name of my orchestra Concordia alive and also to pay tribute to Tomio Taki, who helped me found the orchestra, and that’s why it’s called that. Basically we select one young women conductor who will then shadow me for a year. I’m available to her for coaching and talking. And I invite her to my orchestras throughout the year to conduct the opening work on a concert. It’s been an incredible experience because it achieves so many things. First of all, it gives this talented young conductor podium time with very good orchestras. The musicians always agree to allow it to be professionally videotaped so she has a fantastic videotape record that she can use for her own development. And it’s also grown into a bigger experience: I’ve gotten local women-oriented organizations, like in Colorado, the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce comes on board. They do a big luncheon. They come to a rehearsal. So it networks out into this bigger thing. That, for me, is what success is all about: being able to branch out and involve people from every kind of field.

The winner this year is a woman named Rei Hotoda. She had an image consultant meet with her, a resume expert, and the chamber of commerce brought all these other people into it. So it becomes more than just the conducting, which of course is the main point of it, but it also becomes a support system. I think we as professionals, regardless of our field, really need to become mentors and have an awareness of how important mentoring is. Even if you just help someone in a small way, I think it’s really crucial.

FJO: A lot of the difficult questions you tackled earlier on, like people coming up to you telling you about scores in their attics. Connecting this back to mentoring, you’re obviously somebody who champions composers. How often do you get to listen to work? How much unsolicited work do people send you? Where’s the filter? How do you do as much as you can for this stuff and continue to function as a human being?

MA: I do obviously get an enormous amount of unsolicited material both from composers and young conductors, I get DVDs. I have a few people now that can help me with it. I’m not always successful, but I try to listen to everything, or at least have a quick look so I can speak intelligently and have a real response. Because, although the percentage is not high, I have found a few composers whose works I’ve programmed through these unsolicited scores. Although, generally, the composers come recommended by their teachers or by another colleague.

FJO: Getting back to increasing awareness for contemporary American music: I often go off on tirades when there are lists of the greatest albums of all time and none of them are classical and then where there are lists of the greatest classical composers and none of them are Americans or anyone still alive. We’re in a wonderfully pluralistic world now where so many exciting things are happening everywhere, but we have these little niches—fans of Beethoven or fans of contemporary music or fans of gangsta rap—and they rarely connect to one another.

MA: I think that iTunes—not that it ultimately will be iTunes—is the great equalizer. I have a gospel Messiah called Too Hot to Handel, which was number one in classical on iTunes, but it pretty soon passed the Foo Fighters. So I was really excited about. A live Rite of Spring I did with Baltimore hit number one for a while. It’s a matter of getting the music to people in a format that they’re interested in and getting the word out so that it’s not just a niche, elitist kind of experience but something with a greater appeal and wider access. I think the digital world is great for classical music. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to make it, as you say, not a niche market but something broader and more appealing.

FJO: Earlier this morning you described Concordia as being “pre-crossover”, but we didn’t really talk about that word “crossover.” That word has a stigma in all the various niches, whether it’s classical-music people or pop-music people. Everyone deeply involved in a specific genre seems to have an aversion to it because it feels patronizing in some way. What is your take on that word and what it means or could mean?

MA: Originally, when I started Concordia, it was something more challenged and far more intriguing. Then it became pandering to a lowest common denominator, and so again maybe the word needs to be banned. But I think the idea of no rules and no boundaries is a great idea in every art form. And I think the potential when you throw out the boundaries is for the stereotyping and categorizing to go away, which is something I love. Artists are often far more eclectic and capable and broader than we give them credit for. Just because a composer can write a fantastic film score doesn’t mean that he or she can’t write an incredible art piece or an incredible tune. And why not? If you’re interested in all of these things, why aren’t you allowed to do it? I’m often told: “You shouldn’t do the gospel Messiah because it’s too appealing.” When did being appealing or accessible a mean you’re unintelligent and unsophisticated? We have so many stigmas that we just can’t seem to get away from. Maybe for me the idea of crossover—that word has its own connotation now—but the idea of breaking down boundaries is something that I’ve always been interested in my whole life and that’s something I’ll strive for, and I think that’s what the future of classical music has to look forward to.

FJO: So with all this interest in new ideas and new ways of connecting things, have you considered composing music yourself?

MA: I’ve tried to compose. I am so bad. I have no voice whatsoever. I think part of being a person of integrity means you know your weaknesses. So I stay away from that. But I do a little bit of arranging—which I love—and improvising a bit. That seems to be enough to satisfy any kind of remote compositional interest I’ve ever had. I think I’m much better and more satisfied as an artist when I am assessing someone else’s work and championing it. That’s what really gets me going!

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