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Maestra Talks a Little: Ionarts Interview with Marin Alsop

Marin AlsopWhen the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented its 2006/2007 season a few weeks back, Ionarts had the chance to briefly speak to Maestra Alsop and ask her a few questions – an opportunity we naturally jumped at with delight. Marin Alsop, at a very vital half-century young, immediately comes across as uncomplicated, down-to-earth, and practical: a first – well: second – sign that she isn’t your usual (or at least stereotypical) conductor. And indeed, not fitting neatly into stereotypes has been a hallmark of her career. We asked about her experience with discrimination (positive or negative or none at all) in a workplace that is among the last patriarchal strongholds.

Alsop says that she has experienced “probably all of them… in some way”… but among musicians she never felt that being a woman made a difference one way or the other, and she has never felt any kind of prejudice. Nor did she find that administrations of orchestras treated her differently for being a woman – either as a novelty draw or as unacceptable for being a woman. If anything, for her it was battling societal preconceptions. “You know there is an archetypal image of what a maestro is – and it’s not an American woman from New York… it’s a foreign gentleman with an ascot. It’s a different kind of image.” To get there, her extraordinary drive in anything she did or does (academics, music) has helped her… but, as she relates with a smirk that is somewhere between coy and bored with the question, she doesn’t think that is related to gender, either… it’s just her. She grants that the novelty factor of a woman on the rostrum may have been an advantage in getting more publicity here and there – “certainly twenty years ago, [when] it was even more novel, [more than now].”

When we gush about her interpretations of contemporary, musically conservative or modern-Romantic Anglo composers from Adams to Zwilich, Glass to Torke, she assures us that there needn’t be fear that she will neglect this element in her programming, for fear of being pigeon-holed.

“Oh no… I don’t think so. I’m a champion for many contemporary composers including John Adams, Christopher Rouse, but also Britsh composers; James MacMillan, Thomas Adès – and other contemporary composers: Saariaho…. All these people whose music just speaks to me.”

Marin Alsop - Photo by Simon FowlerGood to know that her statement to the San Francisco Chronicle (August 5th, 2004) does not mean that we might be deprived of these composers (in the interview, Alsop told Joshua Kosman that she is “trying to get away from the American Stigma”). While on that topic, we suggest an orchestral performance of L’Amour de Loin, which receives a chuckle of appreciative disbelief that says ‘I’m with you – but don’t count on it’. Meanwhile we are also assured that her career which, “in Europe[,] is decidedly different from [her] career in America,” being known there mostly for Brahms and Mahler and other standard repertoire, might be seen differently, more balanced, in the future. Already she performs “standard repertoire in her American performances with the top ten orchestras of this country.”

“I generally try to put something contemporary, whether it is American or European… but the bulk of what I do is the standard repertoire. In New York I just conducted Brahms-1; that was the main work, the same, I think, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Philly… But I always try to put something interesting on the program along with that.” It fits well with that sentiment that a Dvořák cycle with the BSO is planned for Naxos.

Also on Ionarts:

BSO 2006-2007 Highlights (February 17, 2006)

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Announces Its 2006/2007 Season (February 16, 2006)

BSO Watch 2006 (February 15, 2006)

A Taste of the Future: Marin Alsop with the BSO (January 13, 2006)

Alsop and the BSO III (July 26, 2005)

Alsop After All... (July 19, 2005)

Marin Alsop in Baltimore... or Not? (July 18, 2005)

Hilary Hahn at Strathmore [with the BSO] (February 21, 2005)
Well, talking about Brahms, there was a last question the answer to which we had been looking forward much. Not an easy question – but how Maestra instinctively found one of the few good answers to it was impressive: “As a great conductor: can you, must you be able to identify your own weaknesses – or is this business one such that you can’t be a great conductor if you think you have any weaknesses?”

“Well, I think that as a great leader one has to recognize one’s weaknesses to a certain extent. I mean, great leaders surround themselves with people that have strengths that they don’t have. And I think it’s important whenever one is in a position of authority one has an responsibility to always try to improve one’s skill set.

I am always working on it – I am not sure I’d ever admit what my weaknesses are to you [Darn it – we were too transparent, once again!] – or to anyone else… maybe that’s the key, you know: It’s knowing one’s weaknesses and not discussing them publicly. But just trying to improve them constantly.”

Perhaps pleased by her answer, perhaps amused by a question that had a little zest to offer, she sees us off with a charming smile, mock-complaining to the BSO’s Vice President of Public Relation Laura Johnson that “He’s asking me hard questions.”

Nothing so hard as to even begin to dent Marin Alsop’s public persona reinforced by her no-nonsense personality, disarming dry humor, and experience. But at least we’ll have some time to come up with new ones until October!


Garth Trinkl said...

Thank you for this interview, Jens.
And congratulations!

While personally I believe that either the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, under Ms Alsop, or the National Symphony Orchestra, under its incoming new music director, should consider mounting a semi-staged production of Kaija Saariaho's and Amin Maalouf's three-person and chorus, two-hour opera "L’Amour de Loin", perhaps you could have also asked Ms Alsop to program the excerpts (or sketches) from the opera -- "Château de l'âme" for orchestra, soprano, and woman's chorus -- that Dawn Upshaw recorded with the Finnish National Opera Orchestra, under Esa-Pekka Salonen:

[And you may recall that the National Symphony Orchestra, a few years back, programmed an orchestral work by Ms Saariaho.]

Sorry to play the moderate to your idealism, Jens!

Mark Barry said...

Now if the Baltimore Symphony can get itself out of debt. 16 million and counting.,0,692519.story?coll=bal-features-headlines