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Swing That Beat: Marin Alsop talks to Jeremy Siepmann

June 1, 2012

Marin Alsop

Musically speaking, Marin Alsop was born with a silver spoon in her mouth—and has been making the best of it for as long as she can remember. From busy kid to even busier adult, she has reached her present eminence by keeping her eye (and ear) fixed unswervingly on her lifetime’s goal: to make music, and through it to enrich the lives of listeners everywhere.

‘I was the only child of two professional musicians, so music was like breathing for me. It was everywhere and a part of everything we did. My parents started me on piano when I was two, I retired from the piano when I was six and took up the violin, and that was the instrument that really spoke to me. So that was it. When I was nine years old I saw Leonard Bernstein conduct and I was hooked. It was at that point that I wanted to become a conductor. My parents were happy for me to do anything, so long as it was in music. But when I told my violin teacher at Juilliard, she told me I was too young to be a conductor—and that in any case girls didn’t do that.’

But even then, that wasn’t the kind of thing one said to Marin Alsop. This girl was going to do that, willy nilly. And the rest is history. ‘I started studying scores, learning as much as possible about them, and occasionally I’d talk my friends into playing little symphonies for me, and this sort of thing. It was a case of trying to seize every little opportunity, and when I was in my early 20s, I started my own orchestra. It seemed the best path for me.’ But she learned as much from playing in orchestras as from conducting them: ‘As a violinist I had the incredible advantage of working in some really excellent ensembles, and by the time I was in my early 20s I was substituting with the New York Philharmonic, playing in groups like Mostly Mozart and the American Composers’ Orchestra, where I had tremendous exposure to many of the leading conductors of the day. I would invariably get up the courage during rehearsals to go up to them and ask for a lesson—and I can’t remember one of them saying no. So I would take these rather ad hoc lessons with a variety of people who were incredibly generous and very kind to me, so this is how I started developing some concept, some idea of what was necessary, skill-wise, for developing as a conductor.’ This was amplified by her formal studies with Carl Bamberger. ‘Many people suggested that I go to him, and when I did, I just fell in love with him! He was such a great person. I would save all my money and have lessons with him twice a week, at his apartment in New York, and he was absolutely marvelous. I always used to bring him Viennese cookies, which he loved!’

The most powerful and abiding influence of all, however, had made his mark, as we’ve already seen, years earlier. ‘In the end it really does all centre on Leonard Bernstein. I grew up in New York City, which of course was his hometown, professionally speaking. He was the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and I used to attend as many of his rehearsals as I could. I idolised Bernstein. When I was little I used to watch him on television, and my father took me to the Young People’s concerts, so he was undoubtedly my biggest influence. Not only as a musician and conductor but as a proponent of new technology, in terms of television—and as someone who didn’t just conduct but wrote those fabulous scores. As I got into my late teens I became very interested in American jazz and I started a swing band called String Fever. So I had this also in common with Bernstein—this love of crossing over different boundaries (particularly where jazz and popular music were concerned).’

Alsop has long been associated with the promotion of contemporary music. What, for her, I wondered, distinguishes ‘contemporary’ music from the rest of the repertoire? How, if at all, is it a separate category (and how is to be recognised)? ‘People, it seems to me, break down into two ways of looking at life. Either they’re excited by new experiences or they’re slightly scared and intimidated by new experiences. And I think that definitely defines their vision of new music. Many people tend to lump it all together as something scary, and perhaps they’re thinking of that rough period in new music when a lot of it was terribly inaccessible and extremely cerebral. I’m thinking back to the 70s, the late 60s. But it’s no more valid to lump all that music together than it would be to lump together all music from, say, 1850 to 1900. It’s all part of a continuum. I like to explain new music by saying “imagine that you went to the premiere of a Beethoven symphony. Remember that that would have been contemporary music.” I think if people can frame new music in a way that’s less frightening they’re really often surprisingly open-minded—and often quite opinionated, which I love! I think everyone is entitled to have a new experience and to have an opinion about it. I was just coming into my own in the late 70s and early 80s, and I got very intrigued by the new music scene in New York. Perhaps not so much the music scene of Milton Babbitt, but of the minimalists. I played in Steve Reich’s ensemble, and with Philip Glass for many years, so I was curious about that and did a lot of new music with the American Composers’ Orchestra. I found it really exciting to be part of a new wave. Of course no one knew at the time where it was heading—which was actually one of the things that made it so exciting!’

In company with many (probably most) musicians, Marin Alsop firmly believes that music, as well as being a glorious diversion, has the power to change people’s lives. Nor is this a matter of mere faith. She is regularly witnessing the evidence. ‘I’ve often had the very moving experience of people coming up to me after a concert and saying things like “I just lost my husband [or wife, or whoever] and haven’t been able to express the depth of my feeling to anyone, but somehow experiencing this music has freed me. Or anyway, put me in touch with something.” Music is not prescribed. There’s no absolute way one must listen to it. It’s all about human capacity. Unlike mathematics, where everything is either right or wrong, in music, in certain ways, you’re always right. You’re creating art when you play an instrument. I’ve started a program in Baltimore called “OrchKids”. We started out three years ago with thirty participants; now we’re up to four hundred! And these are kids for whom classical music is a brand-new, completely unexpected treasure. They never expected to find themselves playing the violin, or trombone or whatever it is. And I’ve watched these kids being transformed, through expressing themselves and experiencing music. And through getting together, in a very special way. There’s an incredibly social dimension to making music. It’s not a soccer game. Not a win or lose situation, not a question of how good you are. It’s a deeply human experience.’

That social dimension, that human experience, of course, does not flourish only between players. In numerous instances through several centuries it has existed between orchestras and conductors, where friendships of a very special kind have been forged between the one and the many. Few could doubt that in the Brazilian city of São Paulo, one such association is moving full steam ahead at this very moment. No-one, however, was more surprised, at the very beginning, than the new Chief Conductor herself: ‘When I first went there, nothing was further from my mind. I was guest conducting. Simple as that. But when I first walked into this huge concert hall, which has got to be the most beautiful in the world, and there was this fabulous orchestra—extremely responsive, very attentive, hungry to create great music—I got actually quite a shock. And it all started from there. I did Mahler Seven, we had a terrific week, and they improved greatly. And what spirit! You know, it’s a “can do” kind of place. They’re curious people, Renaissance people. Everybody involved with the orchestra is incredibly successful, multi-dimensional. They’ve taught comparative literature, they do this, they do that. They’re incredibly well read, erudite people—fun, interested, committed, optimistic. And these are the qualities that spring to mind when I try to describe Brazil. And Brazilian people. Very inclusive, very embracing—all those things that I love. When we talked about my joining them as Chief Conductor there was no doubt in my mind. Like so much else there, this was quite unexpected!’

Needless to say, given her proven propensities, Alsop’s road map for this happy new association focusses, among other things, on providing a platform for local talent. ‘There are lots of interesting areas to explore. One is definitely the area of how to encourage, promote, foster and nurture up-and-coming Brazilian composers—and Brazilian conductors. So we’re already well down the path of trying to figure out how to create the climate and conditions and a forum to find them, first of all, and then to help their careers along. That’s a big part of the overall vision.’

So, unsurprisingly, is recording. ‘Absolutely. I’m thrilled to be able to bring my relationship with Naxos to the table, as it were, and Klaus Heymann, as ever, is very supportive of this new partnership. In addition to the new Prokofiev cycle, we’re very much looking toward the future…Ideal, for me, would be a nice balance of standard repertoire, some South American repertoire, maybe some contemporary music…and an area that interests me very much is recording for children (I’ve already done a few narrated CDs for Naxos and I’m interested in seeing how we can build on this).’

And what of the present? How is it that the Prokofiev symphonic cycle begins with the Fifth Symphony? ‘Well you know our programming was pretty pragmatic. And after all, it’s the most recognisable and well-known of the symphonies, so it seemed a natural first choice. And of course it’s a big challenge, which I like. It’s a spectacular piece, and I love it. The slowly unfolding first movement, with its almost recitative-like beginning, all the way to the driving scherzo and the beautiful slow movement, and then the finale which combines everything. I think it’s an incredibly well-written and successful symphony. And the scoring is fabulous.’

And what are its principal challenges to the conductor? ‘It requires a serious analysis, maybe particularly the first movement, and a thorough understanding of the architecture of the whole piece. If I had to cite one challenge in particular I think it would be the pacing—and how to successfully let it unfurl so that it becomes a compelling journey for the listener.’

For a long time, Alsop has felt equally comfortable in the concert hall and the recording studio. The transition, however, from the former to the latter, has not always been easy. Ever practical, she has come up with a solution almost shocking in its simplicity. ‘What I’ve tried to do over the many years that I’ve been recording is I try to bring those two worlds closer together. Because sometimes, as every recording artist knows, there’s the danger of losing, in the studio, the excitement of a spontaneous performance. Trying always to keep the big picture, the large-scale pacing, foremost in my mind, I think I’ve arrived, in many ways, at what, for me, is a win-win policy for recording. For a start, I try always to do the repertoire in concert first, and to record those concerts. Then, in the studio, we actually incorporate some of the concert takes as part of the studio recording, so that some of that spontaneity I was talking about is actually contained within the studio recording, becomes an integral part of it. For me, it’s really a matter of blending these two worlds, rather than seeing them as two distinct, separate entities.’

It might aptly be said that Marin Alsop is by profession a blender, a binder together. Musicians, of course, fulfil many functions and answer to many needs. How, I wondered, would this one like best to be remembered? ‘I would like to hope that because of what I did, the world was in some way a better place when I left it than when I came. And I think for me that could be manifested through the programs, the initiatives, that I’ve been able to start, especially the concerts with kids. The greatest joy I could have while I’m still alive would be, maybe, when I go to the doctor in, say, 20 years, and the doctor will say “Oh! I was an OrchKid when I was growing up!” You know. That kind of thing. Watching an interview with Obama a while ago, I was very struck when he was asked if he had any regrets about his growing up, and he said it would be that he didn’t play a musical instrument. I thought that was really interesting. And very touching. Hopefully, most of the kids I come into contact with will never have that particular regret!’

It seems a safe bet. And their numbers can only increase. Marin Alsop will see to that.

Jeremy Siepmann is an internationally acclaimed writer, musician, teacher, broadcaster and editor.

Marin Alsop Biography & Discography

Sergey Prokofiev Biography & Discography

Previous releases featuring Marin Alsop


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