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26.7.05

Alsop and the BSO III

This is the third (and presumably last) article discussing the appointment of Marin Alsop as Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Previous opinions can be found here and here.

Marin Alsop
Marin Alsop
Marin Alsop, as we know now, will be the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director Designate in the 2006-07 season and then the Music Director from 2007-08 to 2009-10. Lacking divination, we won’t know what those years will bring exactly, but that can’t keep us from speculating wildly.

There are enough positives about Alsop that even those who regard her critically might find reason for hope. Ironically, one of those great strengths – her devotion and particular ability with 20th-century and contemporary repertoire – may not even appeal to the musically more conservative circles that so urgently wanted her to lead the BSO. (So urgently, indeed, that they did not mind ruffling many feathers among the BSO’s presumably most important employees, the musicians.) Ionarts, however, should be very excited about that particular aspect of Ms. Alsop’s tenure to come. While Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Ellen Taaffe Zwillich, Joan Towers, Jennifer Higdon, Christopher Rouse, and John Adams are hardly hard-core modernist fare among contemporary and recent classical music, it’s still choice repertoire that has been neglected in the region, despite Leonard Slatkin’s worthy and admirable efforts. Since I have decried the BSO’s conservative programming of romantic stalwarts under Yuri Temirkanov on a few occasions, I ought to hail the naming of a conductor as MD that excels in the above named composers and has her baton-holding hand very much on the beating pulse of music. (Not coincidentally she will conduct Rouse and Corigliano performances with the BSO in 2006.) I can only hope that she will bring the enthusiasm, communicativeness, and ingenuity of a David Zinman to the BSO.

available at Amazon
Philip Glass, Symphony Nos. 2 and 3, M. Alsop / BmthSO
available at Amazon
J. Adams, Shaker Loops, M. Alsop / BmthSO
If you are interested in dipping your ears in some of that which might be to come, try two particular recordings of Maestra Alsop. Her recording of Philip Glass’s 2nd and 3rd symphonies is a must-have, anyway. Those two works are among the most enjoyable works of Glass, especially for those who have reservations about too much minimalism à la Einstein on the Beach. Superior to symphonies nos. 5 and 8 (the other ones either available on record or recently heard live), they are at least as well recorded and played as the Nonesuch recordings under the estimable Dennis Russell Davies. They may lack the attractive couplings, but on one disc at eight dollars as opposed to two discs at $17 each, it is a steal.

The other record I particularly recommend is the John Adams Shaker Loops disc with “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” “The Wound-Dresser,” and “Berceuse Elégiaque.” Also on Naxos, playing and interpretation are exemplary. I’ll be sure to listen to those recordings whenever my gripes about her nomination threaten to take over. Hopefully Marin Alsop won’t swear off that repertoire, though, given that she has recently expressed her displeasure with the automatic association of her with contemporary American repertoire. In the San Francisco Chronicle (August 5th, 2004) she told Joshua Kosman that she is “trying to get away from the American Stigma,” relating how her European career (Bournemouth, mostly) and her recording projects (Brahms with the London Philharmonic Orchestra) were “steeped in the standard repertoire.”

It is that standard repertoire that I have my doubts about with Ms. Alsop. Her recording of the Brahms 1st Symphony I thought to be nothing special, to say the least (though it got some favorable reviews in the press) – and her Brahms 3rd at the Strathmore recently was less inspiring, still. To be fair though: one really ought to ask Bournemouth audiences to get a better picture of her way with such works. Everyone can produce lackluster Brahms. Bernhard Haitink, for example, just finished a distinctively indistinctive Brahms cycle with the LSO, and no one would dare question Maestro Haitink’s abilities re: Brahms or any other “standard repertoire” composer. (Nor would it keep me from dancing on the table – as I promise I would/will – if Haitink were to be nominated a conductor in the region!)

Recording prolifically has raised Marin Alsop’s profile considerably, and we can hope that she might continue that with the BSO, who could use the challenge. Unfortunately, that may remain a hope elusive given the self-defeating and (quite frankly) insane restrictions and powers that the unions in U.S. orchestras impose and wield. Only if the BSO moved outside the union restrictions for the purpose of recording – like the Philadelphia Orchestra had to in order to sign a contract with Ondine – might there be a chance to profit from Ms. Alsop’s recording activities. (The unions still hold enough power, as any Philadelphia Orchestra member can tell you. Just recently the union rep. successfully managed to torpedo a patch-up session for Mahler that the PhilO had recorded on their Asia tour, because it was likely to go beyond the session limits by 15 to 30 minutes.)

If you add to Marin Alsop’s record with new music and her recording success two more crucial elements that work in her favor, it becomes clear why the board shoved its MD pick down the musicians’ throat: she’s undoubtedly a media darling – not the least because she’s a female in the last bastion of a rampantly chauvinistic and patriarchic profession. This might well translate into favorable and extensive media coverage and particularly more, new sponsors and donors for the needy (very needy) BSO. Also: the maestra is inexpensive. Word has it that she will take in less than half a million US dollars per year – a basement bargain for a renowned conductor… and somewhere between half and a quarter of what Temirkanov costs the BSO. To whatever extent it is also a statement about her rank among conductors – glass ceiling or not – is difficult to tell.

Marin Alsop
Marin Alsop
What remains most important about a conductor is his or her ability to bring an orchestra to the next level. The BSO, for all its quality, has plenty of room for improvement. Is Ms. Alsop the conductor who can do that? I have my doubts. Not only is the move from Mr. Temirkanov – and I am no enthusiastic fan of his, either – to Ms. Alsop not a step up, I simply can’t see in her the drill-master that the BSO needs to reach those new and higher planes. (Lorin Maazel, for example, could be the type that would ensure pristine playing and no missed entries ever again… even if he isn’t always the most inspiring of conductors. Coincidentally Maazel has some experience with players of an orchestra not taking to his appointment very kindly when he started out in Cleveland.)

The orchestra certainly does not think she is what they need – as evidenced in their substantial disagreement with the board’s decision to name Alsop the MD. That disagreement itself should be the main worry. Starting a tenure with that many players less than enthused about their new leader might doom the all-important relationship between orchestra and conductor. In an interview on NPR’s Performance Today on Friday, Marin Alsop said that she had thought about not taking the position given the dissent among the ranks. Which begs the question: what made her decide to take it, after all? Did she, after pausing for a moment, think: “Ah, f*$# the musicians?” (It’s hardly her style, but the thought occurs.) It’s particularly puzzling since the BSO’s was certainly not the only offer from a major US orchestra likely to come Ms. Alsop’s way over the next few years. I suspect she figures that she is able to mend fences sufficiently by 2006. (If her moving speech to the orchestra ahead of the official press conference is anything to go by, she may well be right!)

Another worry I have, meanwhile, is that what (not only) I consider her strength – aforementioned way with conservative modern American classical music which could do so much to ‘Americanize’ the classical music tradition and experience here – may not be played out to its full potential. The BSO seems comfortable in the Romantic (and less challenging, less novel) repertoire that has been a Temirkanov hallmark. The approach may have worked, too, as the BSO seems to be gaining audience members out of the stock of (former) NSO patrons that occasionally refuse to go along with Mr. Slatkin’s more imaginative and sophisticated (all my very subjective opinion, of course) programming. Not that I mind a Bruckner 9th, Mahler 2nd, and Schostakovich 1st symphony (all of which the BSO will serve up next season… especially the DSCH should be a hoot with the acoustics of the Strathmore – Tip: Get tickets all the way up on the upper tier for a stomach-tickling rumble!). But even the tiniest bit of Carter, Wuorinen, Salonen, Henze, Berio, et al. would be great for orientation in the world of (near) living classical music.

David Zinman
David Zinman
As it is, audiences can hope for the best and the players can start getting over their rightful frustrations. Meanwhile we can start delicious speculations about whom the NSO might appoint as a successor to Leonard Slatkin. Last season has converted me from a Slatkin-doubter to a Slatkin-near-enthusiast. I dare say it’s a shame he will leave… and despite reports that say otherwise (Washington Post), it is my understanding that the players of the NSO actually would not mind if he stayed, too. (We hear that opinions that suggested that the players dislike Slatkin had been prominent in direct relation to their isolated nature.) But leave he will – and it will take a foremost conductor to fill his shoes, much less signify a step up. The NSO’s board promises to shy no expenses to get only the best. Unfortunately, there is a caveat, namely: “…that can be gotten.” Most of the great conductors that would fit the NSO are not on the market or seem unlikely to take the job. If we focus on English-speaking conductors reasonably familiar with the U.S. cultural scene, the two foremost figures – Esa Pekka Salonen and Michael Tilson Thomas – are not going to switch coasts. A Simon Rattle could not be lured away from Berlin shy of a ticket to Paradise. Maazel is a bit old and wants to compose more, but would be very good for the NSO. David Zinman may not be a distinctive move up ‘on paper’, but would in many ways be my ideal. Ricardo Muti I can just imagine to say: “Washingtone is - a – how do you say… beneath-a me.” Another great catch might be James Conlon, a conductor who happens to be a champion of one of my favorite composers, Zemlinsky… so I am biased right there. Dennis Russell Davies and Hugh Wolff would fit part of the profile, but aren’t the big names that would necessarily scream “best of the best.” Roberto Abbado doesn’t seem too popular among the players here – and Stéphane Denève, whom Tim Page mentioned as a possible successor, allegedly behaved in such ways during rehearsals that won’t see him reengaged in Washington for some time to come. (Unlike in Baltimore, the players’ representation on the board of the NSO – also a third – can, like any other third, veto the respective other two thirds.) All this is idle speculation of course – but it’s great fun. Like speculating on NBA trades during off-season or whether Real Madrid is sacking Beckham for Ballack. As regards the BSO, we’ll prepare for Alsop (listen to those CDs!) and at the Kennedy Center we’ll hopefully enjoy Slatkin surpassing himself again and again in two more seasons with the NSO.

UPDATE:
Marin Alsop recollects (Women's work: Conductor of an orchestra, August 3) her rise to the podium of the BSO for BBC News in Great Britain, where she is conducting the Bournemouth Symphony at the Proms.—CTD

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