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Too Many Records

October 29, 2009

Could there ever be too many records? For me, that would be like saying there are too many books; too many opinions; too many ideas. Of course, there is such an abundance of information available to each of us these days that it would be impossible to assimilate it all, but I wouldn’t give up this amazing access for anything.

My first encounter with recordings, probably like everyone’s, is tinged with warm nostalgia. Besides a few pop albums by The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, the first recording I absolutely could not live without is Brahms’ B flat String Sextet. This is the composition that changed my life and my way of thinking about music. When I was 12 years old, I heard this piece through someone’s closed door at a summer music camp. It was so gripping that I couldn’t walk away; instead I sat down outside the door and felt tears coming down my face. It was at that moment that I first understood the incredible power of music to express our innermost emotions. My father bought me a recording with the Amadeus String Quartet and I played it so many times I practically wore the vinyl down to a sliver!

I grew up in a family of musicians and our house was filled with people making music from morning to night. My mother practiced cello every morning; my father practiced violin and sometimes viola, plus rotated playing of all his other ‘hobby’ instruments like saxophone, clarinet, flute, and whistling! We had two dogs who sang incessantly, especially when anyone hit a tritone. I remember my parents’ quartet rehearsing Bartók’s Sixth String Quartet and the dogs howling during the opening viola solo! They said it was extremely alarming without the dog accompaniment at the concert.

We always tried to make our own music whenever possible, so recordings didn’t hold quite the same allure for us as they did for friends of mine who had little music at home. That said, recordings were a way for my parents and me to share pieces we heard and to analyse how different people interpreted a certain composition. I think they continue to fulfil that function for me today.

I loved listening to Leonard Bernstein narrating Peter and the Wolf. Little did I know that he would become my childhood idol and lifelong hero. It was after my father took me to a Young People’s Concert, when I was nine years old, that I decided to become a conductor. I listened to every recording of Bernstein’s that I could get my hands on, and to this day I find myself grunting and sighing at those exact same moments he did on his recordings!

To be able to listen to Kertész, Kubelik, Colin Davis, Mackerras, Dorati and others interpreting Dvořák’s symphonies while developing my own conceptualization of these works is like having a research library at my fingertips. Being able to click, purchase and listen has revolutionized the way I listen to music. I also love the equalizing effect of our new technology, I can listen to jazz as easily and readily as pop and classical, and this brings me back to my childhood: my father played saxophone with the Fred Waring band before he became concertmaster of the NYC Ballet Orchestra, so he was always listening to big band albums and Frank Sinatra.

Growing up with these great popular tunes alongside the late Beethoven quartets gave me a wonderful appreciation for all kinds of music. My father also played on those infamous West Side Story sessions with José Carreras and took me to everything. There I witnessed temperament close up and started to have a sense of the enormous pressure and energy required to make a recording.

I remember being terrified of ‘new’ music so my father bought me an album of Bartók works, including this Contrasts. After listening tens of times, I started to understand and assimilate this new idiom and grew to love contemporary music. I think it must have been the Benny Goodman connection!

When I was in my early twenties, I decided to pursue my childhood passion for swing music and started a string swing band called String Fever. It consisted of six violins, four violas, four cellos, bass and drums. Now I really had to start listening to recordings because I knew next to NOTHING about swing music! They included Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Charlie Parker, James P. Johnson, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum, Joe Venuti and another hero, Stephane Grappelli. I listened all day long and these recordings became my window onto a whole new world of sound – a brand-new language using familiar and not so familiar vocabulary.

My initial experience of participating in the making of a record came with my first gig on Broadway in the première of Sweeney Todd. The entire process of making a recording, let alone creating a Broadway show, was fascinating to me and, thanks to String Fever’s success, I started making a lot of commercial recordings. Often I led the string sections and was able to develop my ears and understanding of the enormous creative possibilities available when making a record.

With String Fever I made two recordings, essentially from scratch (pardon the pun)! This process was an education in itself because I started to understand the variety of possibilities in terms of mixing, overdubbing, balancing, editing. Of course, these were the days when everything was done manually. Imagine my delight with the technology today! I continue to love the process of recording. It’s an opportunity not only to document and preserve an interpretation and concept of a work but also for all concerned to connect on a deeper artistic level. The intensity of the experience makes each of us a better artist and the joy of knowing that people will listen for decades to come is truly humbling.

In the 1990s I had the incredible good fortune to cross paths with a maverick in the record business names Klaus Heymann. His new company, Naxos Records, was getting a lot of attention and I was drawn to his unique vision and willingness to think outside the box, to envision new possibilities. With Naxos and my new role as Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, I embarked on recording all of the symphonic works of American composer Samuel Barber. I have been recording for Naxos for a dozen years now and take enormous pride in the depth and range of repertoire and the high quality of the recordings we have made together.

For me, there could never be too many records!

– Marin Alsop, International Record Review, October 2009


Marin Alsop Discography & Biography


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