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Marin Alsop recalls parents' passion for music

Classical (Music Genre)MusicMusic IndustryCultureDance

The past few weeks have been rough on Marin Alsop.

Late last month, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's music director gathered with family and friends in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., at the bedside of her mother. Ruth Alsop, whose career included playing cello in the New York City Ballet Orchestra for more than 50 years, died Jan. 23 at the age of 82.

Eleven days later, the conductor was back in Baltimore at another bedside, her father's. Lamar Alsop, who was concertmaster of that same ballet orchestra for more than three decades, died Feb. 3 at the age of 85.

"My mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in September," Alsop said. "I had brought my dad down here [to Baltimore] two years ago when he was diagnosed with a neurological condition related to Parkinson's disease. We knew it would eventually get him, but we still thought we would have more time."

A memorial concert is being planned for the spring in New York. "We'll put out a call to everybody we know and make an orchestra," Alsop said.

There is something touching about longtime spouses dying within days of each other. In the case of Alsop's parents, there's a twist, too.

"It is even more eerie," she said, "because they were divorced in 2008. And for the last few years, they were not really in touch. That makes it more poignant, especially after so many years together before the divorce — 49 years. There were a very dynamic couple. Fiery, even. Maybe that's why it didn't work out."

Her parents' intense commitment to music could not help but rub off on Alsop.

"They just assumed I would be a musician," she said, "and that was that. They felt that being a musician was a privilege. They were so devoted to it. I don't think they missed a rehearsal or a concert in their whole careers. I remember my dad even played a concerto the same day he had a hernia operation."

Alsop, who often played violin in chamber music sessions with her parents while growing up, credits her well-known dry sense of humor to her father.

"And from my mother — from both of them, really — I got an incredible sense of possibility," she said. "They were from very humble, blue-collar beginnings. And they made so much of themselves, not just in music, but in so many areas."

Lamar Alsop was born in 1928 in Murray, Utah. At 17, he was playing violin in the Utah Symphony "and doubling on bass clarinet," his daughter said. He also played viola, flute and sax.

In addition to his work with the New York City Ballet Orchestra, he did extensive studio work, making recordings with such pop stars as Tony Bennett, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra and Diana Ross.

The 1985 documentary "The Making of 'West Side Story,'" chronicling Leonard Bernstein's first studio recording of his most famous stage work, includes several shots of Mr. Alsop in the orchestra. (A few years later, his daughter would be studying conducting with Bernstein, who became a mentor and good friend.)

"My father played with absolutely everybody," Marin Alsop said. "I still remember when he came home one night and said that the singer he had played for 'might not be the most beautiful woman in the traditional sense, but she can really sing.' That was Barbra Streisand."

Mr. Alsop was also an inveterate whistler.

"It was highly annoying at home, especially around Christmas," Marin Alsop said. "He would whistle endless variations on 'The Nutcracker.' We would almost have to put him outside."

That whistling earned Mr. Alsop extra attention. It started at a recording session where he was hired as a violinist. Overheard whistling during a break, he was offered a gig as whistler in a commercial for Irish Spring soap.

"He whistled on a Bette Midler recording, too," Alsop said.

Ruth Alsop was born in 1931 in Melrose, Mass. The New York City Ballet Orchestra became her main focus, but she also was a cellist for Radio City Music Hall and, like her husband, did a good deal of concert work as a chamber musician.

Both Alsops taught music at several colleges and universities. Both also developed a passion for antiques, which culminated with the opening of an antiques store in upstate New York.

There were other interests, too.

"My mother did weaving," Marin Alsop said. "She made beautiful scarves. There were 200 people who came to her service, and I think 100 of them were wearing scarves she had made. And she was a potter. We had our own mini-factory. All my dishes were made by her. It sounds maudlin, but she also made her own urn."

Lamar Alsop was a craftsman, too.

"We drove out in the middle of the night so he could buy old wooden light posts that were being removed along a parkway outside New York," Alsop said. "He used these incredible light posts to build a 40-foot cathedral ceiling in our living room so my parents and their friends could play chamber music. It was so crazy, because the rest of the house was so small."

When the family purchased an old home upstate, Mr. Alsop tackled various renovation projects.

"I would practice violin and then have to go outside and scrape off paint," his daughter said. "That's probably why I can't stand any kind of home repair now."

The biggest task at the upstate property was in the service of music.

"My dad built a concert hall for 200 people in the backyard, built it on the foundation of a greenhouse," Alsop said. "He transformed that into a beautiful space. He would valet-park cars on the lawn and then run in to play the concert."

Mr. Alsop's talents included making batons.

"When I was in my 30s," Marin Alsop said, "I was just chatting with him about not being able to reach the guy who had been making my batons, and my father said, 'Oh, I can make these. No problem.' He went crazy making batons. Sometimes he embedded fake jewels in them — they could have been Liberace's batons."

Alsop (an only child), her partner Kristin Jurkscheit, and their son Auden played music together for Lamar Alsop in the last days.

"He was moving his foot to talk to us," Marin Alsop said. "Only music brought that out in him."

A similar connection was made as the conductor's mother neared her end.

"We listened to Beethoven's Ninth together, and she grabbed my hand," Alsop said.

Ruth Alsop recently donated her Steinway piano to the Baltimore Symphony; other instruments she owned may also come to the BSO.

When she decided to enter the traditionally male world of conducting, Marin Alsop knew she would face skeptics. She also knew her parents would not be among them.

"It never occurred to them that I couldn't be a conductor," she said. "They were awesome that way. They had a very can-do approach to everything. My work ethic is a very natural byproduct of living with these two people. My dad used to say, 'You know, Marin, if you don't enjoy the rehearsal, there's no way you're going to enjoy the concert.'"

tim.smith@baltsun.com

baltimoresun.com/artsmash

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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