MAESTRA Marin Alsop leads the Balitmore Symphony

01.07.08
Marin Alsop
The New Yorker

"DON'T LET HISTORY PASS YOU BY!" proclaims a banner hanging outside Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, in Baltimore. The history in question belongs to Marin Alsop, who took over as the music director of the Baltimore Symphony last September, thereby becoming the first woman ever to lead a major American orchestra. Or so some say. A recent front-page story in the Buffalo News declared that the Buffalo Philharmonic-a seasoned, skilled, and not exactly minor group-made this history back in 1998, when it hired the conductor JoAnn Falletta. The League of American Orchestras, asked to adjudicate the dispute, noted that orchestra insiders use the word "major" to indicate an ensemble that plays year round: Baltimore does, Buffalo does not. Whatever the outcome of that controversy, female conductors remain embarrassingly rare. The problem isn't that misogyny runs rampant in the music world; it's that the classical business is temperamentally resistant to novelty, whether in the form of female conductors, American conductors, younger conductors, new music, post-1900 concert dress, or concert-hall color schemes that aren't corporate beige.

The Baltimore Symphony, along with several other orchestras based in troubled American downtowns, has struggled in recent years, its finances periodically in crisis and attendance falling perilously low. The previous music director, Yuri Temirkanov, was a maestro in the traditional mold, a fervent interpreter of familiar repertory. Alsop, a fifty-one-year-old New York native, is quite different, and not just because of her gender. She is a forceful advocate for new music, and has said that she wishes she had been a composer-that conducting is for her a vicarious way of entering into the creative process. All non-composing conductors probably feel the same, but most find it convenient to confine their attentions to the safely deceased. Dead composers don't speak up and ask for more felt on the bass drum; they don't annoy orchestra players reluctant to learn a brand-new score that they might never play again; and they generally don't send listeners running for the exits. Alsop, in previous appointments at the Colorado Symphony and at the Bournemouth Symphony, has shown a knack for charming both players and audiences into enjoying music that they think they won't like. She has become a star, in part, by making composers the stars. She is on her way to accomplishing the same feat in Baltimore-or so it seemed at two concerts this fall.

Alsop's inaugural season is startlingly ambitious. Eleven living composers-John Adams, Tan Dun, HK Gruber, Aaron Jay Kernis, Mark O'Connor, Steven Mackey, Christopher Rouse, James MacMillan, John Corigliano, Thomas Adès, and Joan Tower-make appearances, and they are represented by more than the seven- or eight-minute aural hors d'oeuvre that too often passes for new-music programming. Five of them occupy the entire first half of a program, with a Beethoven symphony after intermission. Composers in Conversation events allow the visitors to explain their visions. To encourage newcomers, the orchestra slashed prices on regular subscription series to twenty-five dollars a night, making up the financial difference with a million-dollar grant. Students are offered a package of five concerts for twenty-five dollars. Whatever excuses Baltimoreans may supply for skipping classical concerts, high ticket prices can't be one of them.

Now halfway through the first season, the orchestra has reported an upward bump in attendance. A healthy crowd showed up for a concert that paired two works by Kernis-"Newly Drawn Sky" and "Lament and Prayer"-with Beethoven's "Pastorale" Symphony. John Adams drew a sizable house for his concerts; Tan Dun's sold poorly. Alsop recognizes that, for the moment, she is more of an audience draw than the composers for whom she has such obvious affection. She's facing a familiar dilemma: on the one hand, she must convince traditional concertgoers of the value of Adams and Adès; on the other, she must convince younger listeners of the relevance of Beethoven. "I don't think I'm being naïve, but I try not to even think about it," she told me, when I stopped by her dressing room after her public conversation with Kernis. "I simply try to treat all music the same."

A protégée of Leonard Bernstein, Alsop takes an intensely physical approach to conducting, leading as much with her upper body as with her forearms and hands. Spontaneous in spirit, she often changes tempi and details of phrasing from performance to performance. Musicians can find that kind of unpredictability frustrating; during one rehearsal, a player tried to get her to commit to a consistent pacing of a ritardando in the "Pastorale," whereupon she jokingly said, "I have an issue with commitment." (When Alsop's appointment was announced, in 2005, much of the orchestra rose up in protest, telling the press that she was glib and imprecise. This rebellion, it turned out, had more to do with player-management tensions than with Alsop herself. A new C.E.O., Paul Meecham, has established a more convivial atmosphere.) The "Pastorale" was given a vigorous, warmly expressive performance, although a slight fuzziness kept intruding on the ensemble. More striking was a version of Mahler's Fifth Symphony that I heard back in September; it showed off not only the conductor's exuberance but also her command of structure. The orchestra, a perennially underrated group, sounds in fine shape; as before, it values burnished textures over virtuoso bite.

Alsop has championed Kernis's music for years, notably in her capacity as the director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, in Santa Cruz, California. The composer made his name in the nineteen-eighties, as a leader of the New Romanticism-a lavish musical revolt against the disciplined neoclassical and modernist languages that had long dominated American music. For a time in the early nineties, Kernis's work grew intimidatingly fraught, as he addressed themes of war and terror. Lately, he has taken on a more spacious, lyrical tone, and it suits him beautifully. "Newly Drawn Sky," from 2005, portrays a day the composer spent at the beach with his young children, watching them in their first encounter with the sea. Deep, rich, largely tonal harmonies evoke the ocean's breadth; flurrying patterns in the upper registers suggest a rapidly changing sky. Alsop brought out the longer line connecting the episodes, so that the music unfolded in one sweeping motion.

"Lament and Prayer," for solo violin, strings, percussion, and offstage oboe, had its première in 1995, at the close of Kernis's doom-and-gloom period. It commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. In the first part, the soloist struggles to be heard above a catastrophic texture of seething glissandos, clashing rhythms, and savage unisons. Later comes an ecstatic breakthrough, as the violin sings a plangent modal melody in the manner of a synagogue cantor leading a congregation, the oboe answering like a voice from the other side. In the coda, the violin climbs into its highest register, achieving complex, unsentimental repose; the string ensemble comes to rest where it began, on the note A, in a haunting reminiscence of the opening of Mahler's First Symphony. In Baltimore, the soloist was the formidable young virtuoso Timothy Fain, who swayed balletically as he dug into the score. (Not long afterward, Fain played in an abridged performance of Philip Glass's "Einstein on the Beach," at Carnegie Hall; his Romantic flair almost broke the spell of Glass's steady-state cool.) Kernis won a passionate ovation. Beethoven was almost an afterthought.

Lists of forward-thinking American orchestras-the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony are the de-facto industry leaders, with the ensembles of Baltimore, Atlanta, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Boston, and Chicago not far behind-seldom include the New York Philharmonic. For years, America's oldest orchestra has epitomized the stick-to-the-classics, no-surprises school of orchestra programming. Not long ago, the critic Peter G. Davis hailed the Philharmonic as "the most boring major orchestra in the world." Seemingly intent on proving the point, the orchestra kicked off the current season with a festival entitled the Tchaikovsky Experience; last year, the spotlight fell on Brahms. Lorin Maazel, now in his sixth season as music director, has the orchestra playing fiendishly well, but he has left no discernible mark on the cultural life of the city. His interpretations remain, for me and others, a closed book. His "Pathétique," at the beginning of the season, was technically seamless but emotionally vague. I heard Tchaikovsky but didn't quite experience him.

All the same, there are signs of life at the Philharmonic. New and twentieth-century works are proliferating. Three notable younger conductors have made débuts this season: Philippe Jordan joined the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard in a meaty rendition of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto; Gustavo Dudamel let loose his visceral energy on the Prokofiev Fifth; and Andrey Boreyko led a furiously disciplined version of the Shostakovich Fourth. That last performance took place in conjunction with a new series called Inside the Music, in which a major work is first discussed at length and then played in full. The analyst for Shostakovich was the mellifluous composer-scholar Gerard McBurney, who, with the aid of photographs, film footage, and dramatic recitations by the actor F. Murray Abraham, transformed Shostakovich's most sublimely chaotic work into the soundtrack for a documentary about life under Stalin. In the end, it didn't tell you too much about the music, but it was a riveting presentation, blessed with a touch of high-class show biz that had been missing from the orchestra since the Leonard Bernstein days. More changes are on the way: a celebrity composer-in-residence, a contemporary series, and, in 2009, a new chief conductor, the musically assured, intellectually questing Alan Gilbert. Critics may not have the old Philharmonic to kick around for much longer.