Marin Mania – Marin Alsop in the UK
The star conductor tells Michael Burland about a momentous period in her already stellar career, her lifelong love of Leonard Bernstein and his music, and how she is celebrating his centenary.
If you check the dictionary for the definition of ‘busy’ it will probably say ‘see Marin Alsop’. The next couple of years are set to be massive for the world famous conductor. Marin is currently the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and also the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra in Brazil, in 2019 she takes over as chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra in Austria (she’s already chief conductor designate for the 2018-2019 season), and in among all that she’s finding the time to celebrate her beloved Leonard Bernstein’s centenary in the US and Britain. I started our chat by asking Marin not to hit me as I posed my first question!
Marin, congratulations on your new roles and all the success you’ve already had. I notice that all the news items about them start with the same phrase. You’re the first woman to be appointed artistic director of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, the first woman to be director of a major American orchestra at Baltimore, the first woman to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship award... are we anywhere near talking about you as a conductor rather than ‘a woman conductor’?
Clearly not yet! [laughs] It’s a double edged situation, isn’t it? If you don’t say anything then you’re not drawing attention to the fact that there are still very few women in these roles. Of course I’d prefer that it not be the epithet that’s always associated with my name, but on the other hand it has some importance, and a little bit of shock value – it’s hard to believe that it’s the 21st century and there can still be ‘firsts’ for women. Classical music is a microcosm of the broader world. I guess I’m in two minds about it. The challenge for me is that gender is something I have no control over. It’s clearly unrelated to quality, unrelated to the work I put into it, unrelated to my talent, so for me it seems almost an absurd title to have. But at the same time I’m cognizant of the fact that if I don’t try to create more opportunities for up and coming women, who will? By being identified as ‘the first woman’ it gives me a platform from which I can try to inspire people.
So it can be a positive?
Exactly. I started a fellowship for women conductors in 2002, because I didn’t see anybody else doing anything. I thought, if I’m not part of the new landscape, who will be? We’ve had twelve recipients and they’re all doing fantastically well. The danger in leaving off the ‘first woman’ describer is that people will perhaps not be aware that we need to create opportunities for next generations.
You do seem to use your position not just to make music, and change classical music in some ways, but to engage with ‘ordinary people’ too. At Baltimore Symphony you had a program where you got passengers to conduct music at the airport, you played at the zoo…
Yes, and it was important to the musicians too. I was particularly moved when there was a lot of unrest after the tragedy of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody and my musicians decided to go out onto the street and play and thousands of people came. Some of them went off in smaller groups and played in different locations in the city, places that had been flashpoints. It was really beautiful. I just went along - I was inspired by their leadership.
For me, music and art in general should have a democratic access. Everybody should be able to play an instrument, everybody should be able to go to a classical music concert. It shouldn’t be limited to people of a certain economic strata. I look at our orchestras and the seeming lack of diversity. It all has to do with access as children, and that’s one of our missions, to create more democratic access for all children in Baltimore. We started with 30 kids in an afterschool program and now we have 1,300. In my lifetime I want to reach 10,000, then I’ll feel that we’ve changed the landscape.
Baltimore has a reputation as a tough, violent city. What do the kids get out of the program?
So much – things like being able to travel for performances, going to summer programs, getting out into a broader world. They have something they belong to, a real group, and it gives them a place to go to every day after school. They learn skills that are important to leading a successful life, like applying yourself consistently, practising, motivating yourself. They learn hand-eye co-ordination, they play together so they work in groups, as a team, learning about resolving conflicts and how to listen.
And something that’s very important in this program is that all the kids have to mentor younger kids, so they become teachers themselves. It gives some of them an enormous sense of pride and empowerment and accomplishment. They talk about it a lot. Some of them are from big families and they’ll have maybe four siblings in the program. Then the parents get involved, they’re wonderfully committed and some have become members of our staff. It’s transformed the community, in a way, and it’s transformed our community too.
The beauty of seeing kids who never dreamt they would play classical music not only playing it but excelling, and loving it too, it’s really inspiring. In many ways I think I get more out of it than they do!
This seems to suggest that you feel classical music is, or should be, an integral part of ‘real life’, not separate from it?
Oh yeah, it’s like going to a museum, it shouldn’t be just once a year. Classical music really bonds people together – going to a concert, being part of the human race instead of sitting at home on your computer.
Are you leaving Baltimore?
No. I’m also in São Paolo, Brazil. My current contract there finishes at the end of 2019. I’ll continue in Baltimore and instead of going to São Paolo I’ll go to Vienna. I can do them simultaneously.
Do you find that the approach to music is different in North America, South America and Europe?
Yes and no. Each orchestra reflects the culture of the country, and even the demeanor of the city they inhabit. And of course they reflect who comes before, in terms of leadership. Every orchestra has a different personality. If I asked you to think of the people of Brazil, what would your immediate response be?
Yeah, that’s exactly how they are! They’re warm, they’re emotional, they move a lot when they play. For Austria you think of a different kind of personality. But then you get past that superficial and stereotypical view, which we all have and which definitely exists, I think musicians are all fundamentally the same wherever I go. They want to be the best they can be, they’re striving for artistic excellence, and they want someone leading them who is passionate, committed, competent, prepared, and who tries to bring out the best in them.
And music is a language all of its own, so you don’t even need to share a spoken language?
Do you think music was the human race’s first language, before we started verbalising things?
Certainly that was one of Bernstein’s postulates: the first words were not spoken, they were sung. I love that idea, don’t you? It’s so beautiful.
And that Bernstein connection leads beautifully onto what you are doing this summer...
This is very exciting – to be able to celebrate the centenary of Bernstein’s birth with the Baltimore Symphony. We’ve just released all of his symphonies [on Naxos Records] and in August we’ll be closing the Edinburgh Festival with two concerts, One is all-Bernstein with Nicola Benedetti on violin, and the other has pieces related to Bernstein : the Gershwin Piano Concerto, a Schumann symphony, Firebird, pieces he really championed. Then when it comes to the Proms we’re doing a program that’s looking at the political side of Leonard Bernstein. We’re doing an overture called Slava! which he wrote for Rostropovich (it’s subtitled A Political Overture), then his Age of Anxiety which is based on a WH Auden poem from the Second World War, and we close with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony which was a big piece for Bernstein. I’m so happy to be able to bring Baltimore to the Proms for the first time, they just sound incredible.
Also, I’ll be finishing up the London Symphony Orchestra’s Bernstein celebration with a performance of Candide. And at the end of the year in November I’ll be recreating, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, the premiere of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms at Chichester Cathedral, with the three Cathedral choirs who performed at the premiere in 1965 when Bernstein was there.
You knew Bernstein, studied with him, and he mentored you, didn’t he?
He was my idol and my hero growing up. I grew up in Manhattan and of course I watched his young people’s concerts on CBS, in the good old days when that’s what was on TV! Eventually I became his student, in 1987 in Germany and then at Tanglewood. I spent a lot of time with him in those last few years of his life.
What was he like personally?
Oh, he was a fantastic guy. So warm and generous. He could be scary too, of course. He loved teaching and sharing his knowledge. It’s hard to have heroes these days, and to have your hero exceed your expectations is unique. He never let me down.
Watching film of him work, and in interviews, he was a genius but he also seemed to have fun with music?
Fun was his middle name! This was a guy who could speak about Plato’s Symposium and then have a party! [laughs]
Most musical kids would want to be a soloist – you wanted to be a conductor from age nine. How so?
I started playing in the orchestra from when I was seven and I loved the sound of it. It felt like it was the biggest instrument ever. Then my father took me to a live concert where Leonard Bernstein was conducting. I watched him, and he turned around and talked to us about the music.
He was so charismatic and so generous about sharing what he knew. I said to my dad, I want to be the conductor. That was it and I never changed my mind, not one day.
Finally, what’s the best thing about being Marin Alsop?
The conducting - I love getting up every morning and studying these phenomenal works of art. Every day is like Christmas!
SEE MARIN IN THE UK
Edinburgh International Festival:
August 24 Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano) play Stravinsky, Schumann and Gershwin’s Piano Concerto; August 25 Marin and the Baltimore Symphony celebrate Leonard Bernstein’s centenary, playing his music with Nicola Benedetti (violin).
The 2018 Proms run from July 13 to September 8. Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will perform Bernstein’s overture Slava!, A Political Overture, Age of Anxiety, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. For full details go to www.bbc.co.uk/proms
November 24 Marin Alsop and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra perform Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms at Chichester Cathedral.