Conductor With a Common Touch

Marin Alsop, of the Colorado Symphony, shows audiences how music matters in their lives.

While things may be changing among the newer crop of conservatory graduates, there are still very few women conductors. Conducting is one of the last male bastions in the art world. So when Marin Alsop ascended the Colorado Symphony's podium five seasons ago, audiences were first skeptical, then absolutely delighted: The New York native is a winning combination of technical virtuosity, professional polish, and personal charisma.

She has already improved the orchestra, which is steadily gaining clarity and passion under her direction. The orchestra may not yet be world class, but it is clear now that, under the right fiscal conditions, it could be.

The young music director of the Colorado Symphony is also creative conductor of the St. Louis Symphony, music director of the Cabrillo Festival in California, and music director of her own orchestra, Concordia, in New York. Her energy, love for music, and business drive (she enjoys every aspect of conducting and directing an orchestra, including fund-raising and business meetings) make her a force to be reckoned with.

"I feel she is bringing people into the concert hall," says Mark Shulgold, Rocky Mountain News music critic. "She is down-to-earth, accessible, witty - Denver needed someone who wouldn't scare away an audience. And she talks about the piece we are going to hear, helping people get a handle on it. She is a serious musician with the common touch - and I see her someday becoming the first woman to head a major orchestra."

Musical charge

In a recent interview, she explained what it all means to her: "Conducting is fascinating. It's almost like the philosophy of music - because I don't even make any sound. What I have is this music that I am charged with. It's like a great gift, right? And I have to take it to these musicians.... And you have to somehow bring all these people together to share your vision, which you hope represents the composer as best you can. And then it's all about motivation and getting people to do their best....

"For me, just playing an instrument didn't utilize all the parts of my mind and my heart and my emotion. I love the interaction with the people, with the musicians, with the audience. I love every aspect of it."

"I think she has brought great energy and a unique presence," says Peter Cooper, principal oboist of the Colorado Symphony. "The orchestra has improved every year [since she came]. I think we are really on a positive roll ... on the right track. Now I feel more optimistic and positive about the orchestra than I ever have."

Playing violin in the children's orchestra at Juilliard School of Music at age 7, Alsop found her favorite instrument - the orchestra. When she was 10 years old, she saw Leonard Bernstein conduct, and she wanted to be him, she says. He was her hero.

Bernstein later became her mentor. When she won Tanglewood Music Center's prestigious Leonard Bernstein Conducting Fellowship for 1988-89, the maestro took her under his wing. "I have such a passion for all kinds of music, not just traditional classical music, that appealed to him. I think we had a very, very true connection.... He was a great storyteller, and I guess he just got to the essence for me of what music is about."

Alsop, too, has stood before audiences, telling stories about the music and composer and then having the orchestra play themes as she described what the composer was up to - much the way Bernstein did in the "Young People's Concerts" on CBS from 1958 to 1969.

"It's a whole world that you give to your children," says Alsop. "But if you don't open the door, they can't even know it's there. I think often about what made [Bernstein] an incredible genius.... It's that he was able to connect all the dots in his life and make a picture. There are so many brilliant people I know who have brilliance in one area, but they can't seem to make it relevant to other parts of their lives or other people. And he could no matter what he did. It was this idea of participating in life and using each thing that you learn to enhance everything else you know, and then sharing it. It was that integration!"

The people's orchestra

Alsop wants her audiences to understand why music matters in their lives, and she wants them to feel a proprietary affection for the orchestra - to feel it is their orchestra. Her common touch means she is spirited and amusing when she talks about the music before the audience. And people respond with surprising gratitude and pleasure. Even the orchestra enjoys it.

Asked why we should care about classical music when it's easier to understand a rock concert, she replies, "First of all, it's like a window into history. So if you hear a piece that was written in 1850, it's like being beamed back in time so that you can suddenly experience not only the sounds, but also the emotions, the philosophy, the politics, the social injustice in addition to all of this particular composer's inner feelings.

"It's his whole life, it's as many worlds as you can possibly have, except, of course, it's not dictated to you - you are allowed to use your imagination and bring your own perspective to it. That's what's great about music to me. When one listens to music, I think it frees your imagination."

She considers attendance at performances a communal activity: "Since music exists only in that moment ... whatever the audience brings to the performance influences the performance. I think that's very exciting. It's certainly very important to us as performers."

New music is difficult for most viewers, but Alsop includes it in her programming.

"I think people are afraid of 20th-century music, but in three years, it'll be the next century. My only criterion is that the music be good. Because I want context. It's what I imagine if every night you went home and ate a hot dog and some baked beans. Maybe it's comforting because you know what you're going to have, but I think you would tire of it. And to me building great programs is like building a great menu."

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