Applause for Alsop's first season

The Baltimore Sun

Earlier this month in Denver, a hearty ovation greeted the dynamic cast after a performance of Opera Colorado's visually and musically potent production of Nixon in China, the minimalist masterpiece by John Adams. But, had an applause meter been in place during the curtain calls, it would have registered the biggest surge of clapping and cheering for the last person to walk onstage, someone who had not sung a note - Marin Alsop.

This wasn't just a case of a local audience acknowledging a longtime favorite, although Alsop is certainly that, having served as music director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra for 12 years in Denver, a place she still calls home. Denverites weren't the only folks in the audience on this particular night at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. A lot of the attendees came from elsewhere; they were in town to attend the massive National Performing Arts Convention, a gathering of more than 3,500 people representing the worlds of opera, symphony, choral music and more.

So, in a way, the reception accorded the conductor after that absorbing performance seemed like more than just an acknowledgment of her musical skills - and she was in peak form as she expressively molded and shaded the hypnotically churning elements that fuel Nixon in China. It suggested a kind of reaffirmation of her status and stature in the American cultural arena.

Alsop, who just wrapped up a successful inaugural season as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is very much at the forefront of that arena today. People all over want to hear what she has to say, not just what she happens to conduct.

At the National Performing Arts Convention, it was Alsop who shared the spotlight for one of the primo events, a one-on-one conversation with Jose Antonio Abreu, the Venezuelan visionary who created the music education and social involvement phenomenon known as El Sistema that has hundreds of thousands of youths playing in orchestras throughout his country.

Significantly, one of Alsop's notable achievements in her first Baltimore year is the launch of OrchKids, an ambitious, El Sistema-inspired educational program in a Baltimore school. Another Alsop goal, honing the talents of promising conductors, led to the establishment this season of a conducting fellowship run by the BSO and the Peabody Conservatory.

That sort of commitment and follow-through has become an early hallmark of Alsop's tenure here. She's willing to put herself on the line and in the thick of things. She takes in the big picture and the smaller pictures. She identifies priorities. She gets people motivated. She gets things done.

She also makes music, of course, and in that vital area she has also put a firm stamp on the BSO after a single season. The sound of the orchestra has changed, at least to my ears. It's leaner, sometimes lighter in tone than it was in the best years with her predecessor, Yuri Temirkanov.

It's also more tightly controlled. In terms of articulation, Alsop prefers to keep things very neat, disciplined and clear (not that there's anything wrong with that). When it comes to interpretation, I've noted before that she colors within the lines, while Temirkanov and some other conductors tend to be freer with tempos and phrasing.

I didn't always find Alsop's approach totally persuasive or terribly involving this season, especially in the case of Beethoven, whose symphonies formed the foundation of the programming. There can be something impersonal or detached in the conductor's interpretations, a sense of reluctance to commit emotionally, to really let go, to dig far beneath the surface of a score.

That said, there is never any mistaking Alsop's seriousness of purpose, her clarity of thought and, above all, her ability to generate vitality.

This led to quite a few peaks this season. Those included surging performances of standard repertoire by Dvorak, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, and commanding accounts of contemporary fare by the likes of John Corigliano, Christopher Rouse and Joan Tower.

There were also such surprises as a presentation of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, with Alsop leading the BSO in an endearing performance of the filmmaker's original score.

All season long, the orchestra came through vibrantly for their music director, and that speaks volumes about the initial and potential strengths of Alsop at the helm.

Maybe it was just as well that she and the orchestra had their crisis of faith before she ever took that helm, back in 2005, when her appointment led to public dissension by players. With all that behind them, everyone could jump into the new regime in a more refreshed state of mind. The rapport onstage was evident in concert after concert.

Alsop's ability to connect with those in the audience was just as apparent. Although purists feel conductors should be seen and not heard, today's classical music public likes, even craves, barrier-breaking verbal contact from the stage, and Alsop has a rare flair for providing it. Throughout her inaugural season, she made direct connections to listeners, drawing them into the experience.

That extra touch of communication was doubly important, given the nature of Alsop's programming. BSO concertgoers, used to a modest amount of contemporary fare during the Temirkanov tenure, got a sizable jolt from his successor. (Next season's lineup is a lot more traditional.)

Alsop packed in a lot of music from our time, and when she wasn't conducting it, the composers themselves were up on the podium. That most of them conducted works by Beethoven or other standard composers, as well as their own, made those concerts all the more unusual.

A separate Composers in Conversation series was created to provide a great introduction, or reintroduction, opportunity for folks planning to attend the performances.

The most offbeat item on the schedule was CSI: Beethoven, a two-night exploration of the causes of the composer's deafness and death. Medical experts analyzed the evidence; Alsop and the BSO got in the act as well. Not the sort of thing that you could find at any old orchestra.

In splash-making terms, then, Alsop's first season ranks right up there. Although I've certainly heard the occasional grumble from BSO fans displeased with her music-making or all that contemporary fare, the numbers indicate no backlash.

Attendance at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall was up 11 percent over the previous season; it was up five percent at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda. More Meyerhoff concerts sold out or sold above 2,000 tickets than in the past five or six seasons, and seven of the 10 best-selling concerts were conducted by Alsop. (Her presence is also credited with bringing in grants from foundations that had not supported the BSO in a long time.)

A $25-per-subscription-ticket deal obviously contributed to the jump in sales for the 2007-2008 season, but the numbers - and the buzz - generated by Alsop's inaugural season are remarkable nonetheless.

"And subscription sales for next season are very encouraging," says BSO president/CEO Paul Meecham. "We're a little ahead of where we were last year at this time. Many first-time subscribers are renewing. And we're not seeing any push back, even though some subscription tickets are going up to $50. Seventy percent of [Meyerhoff] remains at $25."

This was the season that the BSO re-entered the recording market in a big way after a nearly decade-long absence. That market has dwindled drastically since the 1980s and even '90s, but it's still significant that BSO/Alsop products - John Corigliano's Red Violin Concerto (with Joshua Bell) on Sony, Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 on Naxos - were released, and that both were well-received. (An ecstatic BBC Music Magazine review puts Alsop and the BSO right up there with the best versions of that much-recorded symphony.)

Alsop's season-opening concert was broadcast live on XM Satellite Radio, the start of regular appearances on that outlet. This marked the orchestra's first substantial presence on the airways in a long time.

Midway through the season, Alsop and the orchestra made their first appearance together at Carnegie Hall, an event that drew plenty of attention. Approving words came from critics who could never be described as pushovers, among them Jim Oestreich at The New York Times (he called the BSO "excellent" and noted the conductor's "complete control, infectious enthusiasm and canny pacing") and Martin Bernheimer at the Financial Times (he labeled Alsop's conducting "authoritative," the playing "spiffy").

A backward glance at Alsop's initial season, then, has to be judged a distinct plus, with all those crackling concerts, all those energized people in the halls, and the unmistakable sense of forward momentum. Season 2 of the Alsop era promises its own distinct rewards.

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