The 2009 Honorees

By Tim Smith

 She is the first woman to serve as music director of a big-budget, full-time American orchestra. She connects to the public as few conductors today can. Subscriptions are up 20 percent, a new educational initiative has begun, and the orchestra is recording again. In Baltimore, a welcome optimism reigns.



It’s a new world, after all. When a recording of Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9 with Marin Alsop conducting her once famously rebellious band in Baltimore came out earlier this year, it generated accolades for the sensitive interpretation, the solid rapport between podium and players. Given the plethora of “New World” discs already on the market, such praise was remarkable. But given the messy history behind the appointment of Alsop as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the reviews became even more meaningful, helping to underline just how bright and productive the relationship between conductor and ensemble had become.

Three years ago, the prospect of Alsop and the BSO making beautiful music together seemed doubtful. The orchestra was saddled with more than $17 million of debt. Morale onstage and along office corridors was bleak, as a management team led by a controversial CEO with no previous orchestra experience attempted to deal with the problems. Music Director Yuri Temirkanov, increasingly beloved by the players, but less and less comfortable with the administrative situation, had already announced his decision to step down. Several longtime staffers and board members headed for the exits. The top administrators set their sights on Alsop as both Temirkanov’s successor and the organization’s greatest hope for recovery and new growth, but a ham-handed process of naming her to the post in July 2005 led to an international headline-generating protest by musicians seeking more time to consider candidates.
As Clive Gillinson, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, puts it, “Other people less courageous would have walked away. But—absolutely typical of Marin—she was very courageous.” Alsop asked for a few minutes to speak to the orchestra in private before going
through with the deal. “I wasn’t comfortable signing a contract until I could look them in the eye and see if we can make it work,” Alsop said later. Jane Marvine, head of the BSO players committee, described the meeting simply: “She reached out, and we reached out.”
The full impact of that gesture was felt six months later, when Alsop again stood before the orchestra, this time for her first concert as music director-designate. The cathartic performance of works by Dvo?rák and Christopher Rouse had the benefit of the conductor’s trademark energy, and the BSO responded with an intense, cohesive effort. Within a few days of that experience, the needed administrative shake-up was under way; within a few months, the nagging deficit was laid to rest with help from endowment funds. By the time Alsop officially began her tenure in September 2007, something of a Midas touch was being attributed to the New York-born conductor, the first woman to serve as music director of a big-budget, full-time American orchestra. Box-office sales were way up, helped along by an unprecedented $25-per-subscription-ticket deal; corporate and private donations were up, too. The orchestra was recording again, after nearly a decade. The BSO’s first download, a live Rite of Spring, was an instant hit on iTunes. A deal with XM Satellite Radio put Alsop/BSO concerts on the air waves. And the orchestra entered into a new partnership with the Peabody Conservatory to create an intensive fellowship program for young conductors. It’s the kind of transformation that deserves the chronically over-used adjective “dramatic.”
“Marin is the central impetus for all the things that have helped to make the turnaround possible,” says BSO President and CEO Paul Meecham, who arrived in October 2006, drawn by the prospect of working with Alsop. That turnaround shows every sign of continuing. A three-year contract with the orchestra, providing a total 17 percent pay increase, was amicably negotiated more than a month before the start of the 2008-09 season, Alsop’s second. Subscription sales are up 20 percent over the previous season. On top ofeverything else, Alsop’s second season marks the launch of an educational initiative she spearheaded that will bring an El Sistema-inspired program into an inner-city Baltimore school. Given the progress on so many fronts, it’s hard to remember there was ever a cloud over Alsop’s appointment.
Her apparently inexhaustible dynamism—“I know that when I hurricane myself into town with a thousand ideas it can be pretty overwhelming,” Alsop says—is an obvious bonus for the BSO’s overall fortunes, but what the orchestra, any orchestra, primarily needs from a music director is memorable music. Alsop, who was affectionately mentored by Leonard Bernstein, shares his kind of drive and determination to make music matter. “There has to be something more than just playing well,” she says, envisioning an orchestra that can “play so stunningly that it changes people’s lives.” As she goes about seeking to produce such an effect, the conductor has used contemporary music with particularly forceful results; her knack for precision and keen attention to minute details understandably make her prized by living composers, from John Adams to Joan Tower. Alsop’s Cabrillo Festival in California showcases her passion for new sounds and draws audiences deep into the creative process.
Although typecast as a contemporary-music specialist, the conductor reveals the same concern for structure and inner detail in standard rep that she lavishes on freshly composed works. Her extensive discography includes a well-received Brahms cycle with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, for example. Her versatility served her well during 12 years at the head of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and seven with her other BSO, England’s Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and it has enlivened her programming with the Baltimore Symphony, where works of Beethoven, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and Strauss are plentiful, but now likely to be performed in close proximity to challenging sounds of our time. That was the message in her first appearance with the BSO at Carnegie Hall—surprisingly, her conducting debut there—in February 2008, a concert that served up Strauss, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Steve Mackey, yielding reviews that singled out Alsop’s “authoritative” conducting, “complete control, infectious enthusiasm, and canny pacing.”
Some listeners may find one element or another lacking in Alsop’s interpretations, but the total package of assets that she brings to the podium, not to mention her flair for handling the vast extra-podium responsibilities expected of American music directors, has inarguable value. Whether making wry and dry comments from the stage to hook an audience on the experience in store, or fielding questions from the many people who eagerly stay behind for a post-concert discussion, Alsop connects to the public as few conductors today can. And the combination of inquisitiveness, animation, and commitment that she brings to a score can communicate vividly to an orchestra, as has been demonstrated repeatedly since she became music director of the Baltimore Symphony.
Alsop took that job believing she could make a positive difference. She delivered. In the process, she also moved to the forefront of this country’s cultural life, a welcome force of contagious optimism and change people can believe in (to borrow a phrase). The way things are going, Musical America’s Conductor of the Year could turn out to be the Conductor of the Decade, too.
Tim Smith is music critic for the Baltimore Sun.


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