With her appointment as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007, Marin Alsop became the first woman to head a major American orchestra. She is also the first woman to record the complete cycle of Brahms symphonies (Naxos) and to record a Mahler symphony (the Fifth) with a major orchestra (LSO Live). From 2002 through 2008, Alsop was principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony in the United Kingdom. In 1989 she was a student conductor at Tanglewood, where she worked with and learned from Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa. Her interest in Brahms, Mahler and Bartók is coupled with a passion for American composers — Barber, Bernstein, Gershwin, Glass and others; most recently, she released an acclaimed recording of John Adams’ Nixon in China with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (Naxos), where Alsop is conductor laureate. It was in Colorado where Listen caught up to Maestra Alsop by phone. She had been rehearsing with the CSO for performances of Too Hot to Handel, her gospel version of Messiah.
So tell me a bit about Too Hot to Handel.
This is an idea I had, oh gosh, a long time ago now, in the early ’90s, of updating Handel’s Messiah. So I got a couple of arranger friends of mine on board and we went through the whole piece and talked about each number and treated it differently. It’s a different orchestration — it’s got a big rhythm section with Hammond B-3 organ and gospel piano and five saxes and full brass and strings. So it’s totally wild. It’s on iTunes if you want to have a listen.
I’ll check it out. Are you still playing jazz violin?
No, not too much. I just don’t have the time, unfortunately.
With Concordia [Alsop’s fifty-piece orchestra founded in 1984], you championed American repertoire that included jazz. Do you think jazz
is something you can bring to the podium at Baltimore?
Well, I think I have already to a certain degree; we did Too Hot to Handel there last week. I try to do programs that cross all kinds of boundaries because I think that’s an important component, or addition, to what we do. Standard repertoire is my meat and potatoes — like every maestro — but there’s only so much of that ‘product’ that audiences can really support, and then we have to think outside the box and do different kinds of things. This big Gershwin project we just did with Jean-Yves Thibaudet is a good example of crossing boundaries. And I’ve done some projects with the tap dancer Savion Glover and these kinds of things — it’s really fun!
Is there a time coming when we’ll see Ellington and Monk earning a place within the classical repertoire?
I think they definitely have a place already. I think in the last twenty years, it’s emerged and grown toward a far less rigid and bounded field. When I was doing Concordia, the term ‘crossover’ hadn’t even been coined yet. Nowadays this kind of eclecticism is — I wouldn’t say commonplace, but certainly more common. The idea of integrating Ellington into a subscription concert, these are things I do all the time. And I do meet some resistance, but not usually from our listeners. [Laughs.] I think listeners — you know, the young people today — are so eclectic in their listening habits. They’ll download a movement of Vivaldi next to a pop tune, and as long as everything is well performed and the music is valid, I see no reason why these things can’t live side by side. There’s that famous quote from Duke Ellington: ‘There’s only two kinds of music: good music and bad music.’
‘Vivaldi next to a pop tune’ reminds me of the Bernstein Mass —
— a piece which has historically had trouble with the critics, but you seem to be making quite a case for it. What is it that attracts you to this work?
Well, I think it was really misunderstood when it premiered, and it has been misunderstood for, I think, decades. People looked at it and listened to it very much from polarized vantage points of ‘Oh my God, that’s a rock ’n’ roll song next to a twelve-tone meditation’ and ‘How is that possible?’
I think, again, with the crumbling of the walls — appropriate with the Berlin Wall celebrating the twentieth anniversary of its fall — with the blurring of boundaries, people are really able to listen to this piece now not as a shocking genre mixture, but rather as an integrated, through-composed, brilliantly, skillfully written theater piece, which is what it is and what it was intended to be, instead of being jarred by the vernacular, you know? And it’s a piece with a tremendous storyline, with a tremendous message, a piece that has endured and grown in meaning over the decades. I think it’s a lot easier to make a case for the piece today than it was in ’71 when it premiered, because people would have gotten hung up on his audacity to juxtapose these genres and mix them up and blur the boundaries. I think that would have been very upsetting to the listeners, or certainly the critics, as we know.
Why is it that Bernstein took a hit for this polystylistic piece while Berio and Schnittke were lauded for similar approaches?