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.
Philip Glass, Symphony Nos. 2 and 3, M. Alsop / BmthSO
J. Adams, Shaker Loops, M. Alsop / BmthSO
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.
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.
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