Alsop Conducts AFO at Granada

By Steven Libowitz   |   August 8, 2019

Marin Alsop is a serious classical musician, perhaps even more so than the average conductor, given what she had to go through to accomplish what she has over a 35-year career. Along with her many other achievements, Alsop became the first woman ever to lead a major American orchestra when she was appointed music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007, and made history again five years ago when she became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms in London’s Royal Albert Hall, the pinnacle of the world’s classical music festivals with an audience of over 40 million.

“I am a determined person and I’ve worked really, really hard,” Alsop allowed in a recent phone interview from her home in Baltimore, acknowledging that she’d also forged her own path by creating her own orchestra early on when the opportunities for women were nearly non-existent.

Music Academy of the West presents Marin Alsop conducting the Academy Festival Orchestra at the Granada on Saturday, August 10 (photo by Adriane White)

But that doesn’t mean Alsop forsakes the lighter side of life, as indicated by her appearance two weekends ago as the special guest for the “Not My Job” segment of NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me weekly comedy/news quiz show.

“It was a lot of fun,” Alsop said, even though the subject of her multiple-choice quiz – which is always some sort of play on words of the guest’s name or profession – was not exactly her forte. Superconductors, which are substances that have little or no resistance to electrical current and are vital in computers and many other tech fields, are a far cry from interpreting musical notes on a page. Still, she managed to get the requisite two out of three correct. “But I had a lot of help from the audience,” she said with a laugh.

On second thought, though, Alsop does have a lot of experience with the movement of energy and creating connections, albeit between people and musical compositions, as her success over a wide scope of conducting challenges confirms and as noted by a 2010 Grammy for her recording of 2019 MAW composer-in-residence Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto. Next up is this Saturday’s closing concert of the MAW season, when Alsop will lead the Academy Festival Orchestra in a program comprised of Higdon’s blue cathedral, Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7, at the Granada Theatre.

It’s the first appearance for the celebrated Alsop, who will return to MAW next summer to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in the third year of the MAW-LSO partnership. And, if it were up to her, she’ll keep coming back to create a conducting program at Miraflores, which has yet to go in that direction. “Maybe I can talk them into it!” she said. 

Q. How does working with a younger, and temporary, orchestra differ from the BSO or other professional ensembles, and only for a single concert?

A. There are pluses and minuses to everything we do. I love working with young musicians. What they might lack in finesse, they make up for in enthusiasm and openness. [It’s also easier] because they will have been playing together for quite a while by the time I get to them. But I find the letting go part much harder. I’m an orchestra builder. I like relationships that gestate and take time to develop. It takes a while for me to feel close, but then I’m a friend for life. So it’s the letting go – the creating of a relationship and then saying goodbye – that’s always hard for me. 

I hesitate to bring up the whole gender question because it seems disingenuous to me, and you have been quoted as saying, “I’ve been the first woman to do a lot of things, and I’m really proud, but I also think it’s absolutely pathetic.” Still, it’s certainly been a part of your career. Do you like talking about it?

No. I don’t think that being defined by gender is a compliment, because it has nothing to do with talent or achievement – it’s just a fact. We’re not as glib when it comes to other artists as we are with women. No one would ask the question, “How does it feel to be a black conductor?” Those questions are really quite silly anyway. But being one of the first women to excel in this field brings an opportunity to try to create a new landscape for the women who come after me. That’s what I care about. I don’t feel the need to self-promote because I’m a woman, but I do hope to help eliminate these questions for future generations. That’s why I created the [Taki Concordia Conducting] Fellowship in 2002 for young women conductors, of which I am extremely proud. Of the 20 winners, five are now American music directors, two are European MDs and they’re all doing fantastically well. That’s why I endure the questions. It’s a platform to raise awareness… Now, with the MeToo movement, suddenly after 30 years a lot of doors have been opening, which is fantastic. But we have to be vigilant, very prepared and very good at what we do to maximize the opportunity.

I was fascinated when I read about how you have to be aware of how your gestures on the podium might be interpreted differently than the same movements from a man. That must be frustrating.

It’s a facet of how our society looks at people in general. You just have to deal with it. If you’re going to be in a profession that requires societal reaction, you have to analyze what you’re doing to get the response that you want. It’s not negative or positive. It’s just a reality. When I work with young people, I talk about it openly. Impressions are very important. You have to always be cognizant of that, whether it’s gestures, or clothing, or anything else.

It seems you’ve come to terms with dealing with what is, knowing that your job is to get the response you need from the people you work with.

That’s exactly right! My responsibility as a conductor is to the composer. I have to do whatever it takes to convey that message.

Speaking of which, it seems you have your work cut out for you with Saturday’s program.

I love that it’s really varied. The three composers couldn’t be more different. What ties them together is that they all have a very strong narrative. They’re all motivated by coming from a place of great emotion. They express the composer’s point of view really vividly. Jennifer’s blue cathedral is an absolutely gorgeous piece in memory of her brother. Hindemith’s – which is very challenging and virtuosic for the orchestra, most of whom probably haven’t played it before – is about principles, morals, and the role of art in times of oppression. Dvorak’s 7th symphony, a signature piece that I’ve recorded with the BSO, is arguably his greatest. I am drawn to his use folk music, the celebration of ethnicity and his fascinating use of rhythm.

MAW Bids Adieu with a Higdon Holiday

Jennifer Higdon, MAW’s 2019 composer-in-residence, did in fact make it to town in time to conduct previews of her opera, Cold Mountain, with stage director James Darrah prior to both performances of the 2014 work that served as the work’s West Coast premiere at the Granada. But while the opera presentations themselves are in the rearview mirror, Higdon is sticking around right on through this weekend, the final one in MAW’s 2019 Summer Festival.

After coaching and teaching privately all week, Higdon will step on stage at Lehmann Hall at 1 pm on Thursday, August 8, to conduct the final Chamber Music Masterclass, where the fellows will perform and receive feedback on a number of pieces. That should include, we imagine, her piano trio Color Through, which will be performed later that evening at Hahn Hall in the season’s final Picnic Concert by the fellows Daniel Kim (violin), Noémie Golubovic (cello) and Salome Jordania (piano).

“It’s my second piano trio, a very new piece that I’ve rarely heard played myself,” Higdon explained over the phone recently. “My first piano trio was also based on colors – that time it was red and yellow. This one is blue and white. The reason it has that title is because trios can combine the two, mix and match the movements anyway that they want, although this one is very contrasting to the movements in first piano trio.”

Higdon said she was both imagining the colors and trying to create music that would evoke them for the audience when she composed the piece.

“The movements are called ‘Brilliant Blue’ and ‘Wondrous White,’ so there’s also some character to the colors. I wanted to capture something about their essence. But I can’t tell you much more now, because I’ve moved on. It’s been played a lot, but I’ve only heard it once so not that much has stayed in my head.”

Still, Higdon said, masterclasses are a lot of fun for her because the students always ask interesting questions. “It’s always fascinating for me to see how they view the music. Sometimes they have interpretations I never thought of at all. So it can be inspiring.”

Saturday night’s season closing symphony concert featuring the Academy Festival Orchestra in their final performance at the Granada will also begin with a Higdon work. blue cathedral, the most-performed piece in her catalog and likely the most famous, was, like virtually all of her work, created via commission, but it’s about as personal a piece as could be imagined.

“I wrote it after the death of one of my brothers, whose middle name was ‘Blue,’ as both a coping mechanism and a way toward catharsis,” she recalled. “It’s a tone poem with flute and clarinet solos, and it’s my most popular work. [Considering how personal it is], it’s amazing that so many orchestras have performed it, probably 20-30 every year on average. Philadelphia is about to play it for the fourth time this season. I guess it still resonates for other people, too.”

In between those two events, Higdon will actually sit amidst the audience for Friday’s annual Marilyn Horne Song Competition. Well, she’ll be at the judges’ table alongside Honorary Voice Program Director Horne and the Metropolitan Opera’s veteran coach and musical assistant Ken Noda. All of the MAW Vocal and Vocal Piano fellows will be performing, the singers offering three selections, including at least one in English. The judges will then choose one singer and pianist to receive the honor of The Regina Roney Prize – a cash award – plus an international recital tour that will center around a Higdon song cycle commissioned for the winners to premiere next year.

“I have no idea what it will be yet because it has a lot to do with who the winner is,” Higdon said. “I just try to get a sense of their voice, then find poetry that will work with them and that I’m interested in setting. Then I just sit down and write it. It’s truly gut instinct, something that feels appropriate.”

But, Higdon cautioned, she can’t even begin to think about it until the fall, because she is writing her second opera – a mystery chamber work for five singers and 12 instruments called Women with Eyes Closed – which is due in October. “I only write one thing at a time. So I’m in deep with other characters.”

This Week at MAW

Thursday, August 8: It’s moving day for more masterclasses, including those in clarinet (1 pm), trombone/tuba (1 pm), violin (3:15 pm) and trumpet (3:15 pm), plus the Chamber Music session led by Higdon (see above)… Tonight’s season finale Picnic Concert features a work by Higdon (see above), plus Dvorak’s String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 77, with Yeajin Kim, Jessie Chen violins; Harmony Chiang viola, Mizuki Hayakawa cello, and Daniel Moreheaddouble bass; and theOverture and Dances from Rameau’s “Les Boréades,” played by James Dion Blanchard flute, Mayu Isom oboe, Roy Park clarinet, Luke Fieweger bassoon, andJack Bryant horn. Additional works to be added (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $40).

Friday, August 9: The honors of leading the last masterclass of the summer goes to Robert McDonald, who will take the solo piano fellows on one last journey of public performance and coaching at 1 pm in Hahn Hall… The annual Marilyn Horne Song Competition (see above) takes place over two sessions, at 4 and 7:30 pm, at Hahn ($25).

Saturday, August 10: The season sendoff for MAW features, as always, the final AFO concert, conducted this year by Maron Alsop (see above for an interview), who will lead the fellows on works by Higdon, Hindemith and Dvorak (7:30 pm; Granada; $10-$100).


You might also be interested in...