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Leading the Baltimore in a New Direction

Marin Alsop
The Wall Street Journal

When the American conductor Marin Alsop, 50, opens her inaugural season as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this week, she will become the first woman ever to head a major American orchestra. Tomorrow, she and the BSO play at the orchestra's second home, the Strathmore Music Center in North Bethesda, Md., and on Friday at the orchestra's chief home, Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Her inaugural program already demonstrates her original thinking. Not for her the usual selection of old chestnuts, so typical of these seasonal openers. Instead, Ms. Alsop -- or the Maestra, as the orchestra bills her -- is flexing her intellectual muscle, and her orchestra's, with an unusual repertoire at once complex, powerful and eminently approachable: "Fearful Symmetries" by John Adams, among today's most widely performed contemporary American composers, whose music blends minimalist rhythmic drive and often a noteworthy melodic profile, and Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony. Discussing this program recently, over sandwiches in New York, Ms. Alsop observed that "a lot of what I do in Baltimore will be driven by programming, especially putting new and old repertoire side by side, so that people have a jolt of recognition and put things in a new perspective."

"Jolt" is an apt noun for this inaugural, considering the uproar that ensued when the orchestra's management announced, in 2005, that it had chosen Ms. Alsop to succeed the Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov. At the time, she was the popular music director of England's Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, a guest conductor of international importance, a frequent music commentator on the BBC, and a steadily increasing baton presence on Naxos compact discs. Known as a vital interpreter of American music, she is also known for talking to the audience about the music she is about to conduct.

Unfortunately, the appointment was announced just when the Baltimore management and musicians were barely on speaking terms. Many orchestra members declared that they hadn't had sufficient input in the selection process. Ms. Alsop observes that "I got caught in cross-fire that was really unexpected." Noting that she had previously guest-conducted the orchestra about eight times since 2002, she says that "they kept inviting me back, and each experience had been positive and rewarding." But even at the height of the controversy, "I never really thought it was personal."

She says that "the whole institution was dysfunctional. They had a huge debt, their subscriptions were down to 60%, they hadn't made a recording in 10 years and had virtually fallen off the map in terms of profile." Nevertheless, having told the board that she was willing to become music director, and "having already spent the six prior weeks asking myself if I could have a positive impact on the orchestra, the thought of withdrawing under those circumstances was pretty much unthinkable. What would people say -- she came up against a little pressure and ran like a mouse?

"Moreover, I really thought the job was right for me. I felt that, despite this, my experiences with the musicians, the audience and the Baltimore community had been genuinely positive." One major problem had been a lack of communication between the musicians and management. "The musicians felt shut out. And I think they hadn't been properly taken care of as human beings in a long time."

Therefore, Ms. Alsop decided "to stick it out and try to deal with the musicians as I would like to be dealt with -- honestly and transparently. I told the board I wouldn't sign until I had spoken with the musicians -- alone. So Hugh Wolf very kindly gave me 10 minutes of his rehearsal, and I just walked in. I laid out an artistic plan, what I thought I could bring to them, what obstacles and hurdles I expected to encounter. And I talked candidly to them about this extremely traumatic appointment process, admitting that it would take some time to get over, but that I was determined to put it behind us. And I think that was the start of a relationship."

Apparently determination has always been part of her nature. Born in New York, the daughter of professional musicians, Ms. Alsop studied at Yale before switching to Juilliard, where she received her bachelor's and master's degrees in violin. But she was profoundly drawn to conducting. At one point, she would invite musician friends to her New York apartment with blandishments of beer and pizza in return for letting her conduct them after they'd gorged themselves.

In 1988 and 1989 she worked as a Tanglewood Conducting Fellow with her greatest idol, Leonard Bernstein. Previously, in 1984, she had formed her own ensemble, the Concordia Orchestra, to learn a conductors' requisite professional skills. Originally financed by a Japanese apparel magnate, Tomio Taki, for whose wedding Ms. Alsop had been violin soloist, Concordia disbanded as Ms. Alsop's conducting career took flight. However its legacy continues in the Taki-Concordia Conducting Fellowship, which Ms. Alsop founded in 2002 to provide young women conductors the opportunity to immerse themselves in the art and business of performing classical music.

Mentoring is an important part of her character, and like her hero Bernstein she manages to bring an underlying spirit of teaching to her concert work. Her method is to invite her audience and musicians to approach a concert with a spirit of adventure and a willingness to perceive familiar music in a new way. Citing "Baltimore's impressive quickness and fleetness with new music," she says that "by programming a wide diversity of repertoire, the orchestra will regain and broaden the depth of what they can do. For instance, playing John Adams on the same program as Beethoven informs your Beethoven, while expanding your interpretive vocabulary."

Not surprisingly, therefore, a Beethoven cycle is a cornerstone of Ms. Alsop's first season. "This cycle will be informed by, and in part conducted by, living Beethovens -- contemporary composers." The pairings are certainly stimulating: John Adams is conducting his own work and Beethoven's Seventh (which Mr. Adams regards as Beethoven's "minimalist" symphony). James MacMillan is doing Beethoven's Second and a work of his own; Thomas Ades will conduct Beethoven's First and Fourth symphonies and his own Violin Concerto. H.K. Gruber is doing Beethoven's Eighth on a program with his own "Frankenstein." Conducting the rest of the cycle, Ms. Alsop plans to couple "Eroica" with John Corigliano's rarely performed Piano Concerto, the Fifth with Christopher Rouse's Flute Concerto, the "Pastorale Symphony" with music by Aaron Jay Kernis (a composer particularly drawn to nature), and finally the Ninth with Joan Tower's Concerto for Orchestra.

"I'm really trying to draw parallels between today's music, reflecting the events of our own time, and Beethoven's music, which reflects the trials he experienced while writing it." In addition to audience discussions with the visiting composers, Ms. Alsop is doing a two-day event called "CSI Beethoven." "Neuroscientists from Johns Hopkins University are going to offer a comprehensive overview of Beethoven's deteriorating health. They're able to simulate Beethoven's gradual hearing loss, so that people can actually experience what must have been Beethoven's extreme terror and devastation at the time. And for the two evenings, the orchestra and I will play short musical examples of significant Beethoven works to heighten the immediacy of the connection."

Beyond the music itself, Ms. Alsop, supported by a new board chairman and almost entirely new management team, is ushering in a new era in Baltimore in a variety of ways, among them an underwriting program saluting Meyerhoff Hall's 25th anniversary -- offering every subscription ticket for every seat, every concert at $25. "The trick is not just to succeed for the one year but to determine the most effective way to follow this up. If it proves a financial success, why go back?" She says there were several hundred people waiting outside the box office the day tickets went on sale to the general public. "I don't think that's ever happened before in Baltimore SO history."

Discussing her plans to raise public awareness of the orchestra beyond Baltimore, she says that she and the orchestra started recording a Dvorak cycle for Naxos in June. There's also a disc coming out of Mr. Corigliano's "Red Violin" concerto with Joshua Bell on Sony -- for which Mr. Corigliano has composed three additional movements. And to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Peabody Institute (the nation's oldest music academy), "we collaborated with 60 hand-picked Peabody musicians in a concert performance of Stravinsky's 'The Rite of Spring.' We made this performance available online through iTunes, and it went to No.1. It surpassed in popularity even the most relaxing classical pieces in the universe. I thought, well, people must be in need of something really edgy right now, because 'Rite of Spring' is about as far from relaxing music as you can get."

Still, she acknowledges, there's plenty of work to be done both artistically and toward deepening the relationship between herself and the orchestra. "I try not to force things," she says. "My friendships are slowly built and long lasting."