Classical: A word from the maestro herself

Marin Alsop is a rare breed: a female conductor. And one who's said: `Hey, kids, classical music is cool.'
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She's one of the good guys," remarked another of the good guys just prior to my meeting with Marin Alsop. We hadn't yet been introduced, and already she was "one of the boys". That's emancipation in a world where the word "maestro" still has no feminine equivalent.

The Collins English Dictionary makes no bones about it: "Any man regarded as the master of an art." And here was I hoping to avoid "the gender issue" altogether. Maybe next century. For now, even Marin Alsop acknowledges that the public at large still has very set ideas about how "a maestro" should look and sound: usually male, usually venerable, usually "foreign". In the USA, where Alsop was born and bred, most of the major orchestras have traditionally chased the big European names, especially those steeped in the Austro-German tradition. Change is happening (Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco, Leonard Slatkin in Washington, Alsop in Colorado) but slowly: "The look, the accent, has become part of the mystique. To have someone at the helm who could be your next door neighbour doesn't quite fit with the traditional image most Americans have of a maestro. It's very much the same with the gender issue."

Meaning that you can deny it as often as you like - and Alsop does so with a smile - but centuries of conditioning keep catching you out. The maestro herself volunteers an example. Flying across the States recently, she took a peek into the cockpit before taking her assigned seat. She spotted two women officers at the controls.

Now it was only a split-second thing, a reflex, no more - the thought had not yet formed in her head - but she found herself mouthing the words: "Is this alright?"

Very alright. That was her second thought - or rather her first thought, fully formed. So there's an end to "the gender issue". There is no "gender issue" (she's smiling again).

There wasn't back in 1989, when she won the Koussevitsky Conducting Prize. Nor a year earlier when she was awarded the Leonard Bernstein Conducting Fellowship at Tanglewood. That was the big one for her. Invaluable hours spent in the presence of the great man, sharing his thoughts, accepting his advice, his criticisms, his praise; sensing his insecurities. Most of those insecurities centred on his "creative" work: his composition. Alsop quickly realised - as did this writer in an interview with Bernstein only a year before his death - that to love him, you had to love his music.

That's where he lived. And died, in the opinion of his sterner critics (and there were many). Take a work like Mass, the all-embracing theatre piece which opened the Kennedy Centre in Washington and still, even now, is an embarrassment to those who would ridicule Bernstein for being Bernstein. If you doubt the sincerity of Mass, if you deny its integrity, says Alsop, then you deny everything Bernstein was. Mass is a microcosm of his personality. It's a piece in which many different kind of music riotously co-exist, a piece without boundaries, without prejudice; it's about connections - religious, political, social; it's about change - a Seventies' piece with a new millennium reach.

Alsop has conducted it several times now (though not here, she adds pointedly). She believes that part of the problem with Bernstein's music during his lifetime was our inability to get any distance from it. "He was such a larger-than-life character that it was impossible to assess the music without bringing the man into the equation..."

So what did the man teach her about conducting? "Simply that it was my responsibility to know why every note was there; what its function was musically, what motivated it. In conjunction with the fact that every piece had a story to tell. I loved Lenny's stories. He was such a great storyteller."

Hang on a minute - whose stories are we talking about here? Bernstein's or Beethoven's, Bernstein's or Mahler's? It's true that Bernstein always maintained that he could gauge the success, or otherwise, of a performance by the degree to which he felt he was composing the piece as he went along.

But Alsop can relate to that. Before you can conduct a composer, she says, you have to know them: "To a lesser or greater extent, you have to get inside their heads. Every composer is essentially writing the same piece over and over - we're all searching for the same answers. But we all have our own set of burning questions... and it's the questions you have to identify."

So much for stage one. Stage two is more practical. It is, says Alsop, simply a case of: "Being an enabler and not a handicapper. We have such great orchestras these days that the best we conductors can do is free the players to do what they do so incredibly well. But there is a balance to be maintained. When we think about life, many of us like to think about the bigger issues. But the reality is that we end up remembering that we have to pick up the dry cleaning, or that we need to go to the supermarket - we end up thinking about the day-to-day details. It's much the same being a musician: you've got these notes to put in the right place, you've got to play them in tune, you've got to make a nice sound: and sometimes the bigger picture, the reasons for the notes, gets lost to the detail."

But then comes "the black magic" of the actual performance. Or to put it the Alsop way: "You lay down the chemicals in rehearsal, but you bring the match to the performance." And should the proceedings then move on to an altogether higher plane, the tacit - or should that be tacet - participation of the audience will invariably be a factor.

"Audiences don't realise how important they are. You get one of those audiences who are concentrated and listening to every nuance - it's infectious, it communicates. The musicians feel it too and suddenly every nuance becomes more important because everyone in the room has huge ears."

In Denver, where Alsop is music director of the Colorado Symphony, her audiences' auricular prowess is a source of great pride to her. She's worked tirelessly to win their trust, draw them in, reach the children through the adults and vice versa. She's in the business of demystifying music, encouraging a spirit of adventure in her audiences. She'll talk to them, before and after concerts (preparation and feedback). She and her musicians might make office calls in the lunch hour. Call it "education" if you like, but she wants people to laugh at Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel because they know the jokes. She wants people to experiment. No one has been more supportive of contemporary American music in the USA. "It's our musical future," she says simply.

But for how long? It's now municipal policy in the United States to play classical music in public places (train stations and the like) where you don't want kids loitering. Tie that into the elimination of musical education and you've an aversion therapy worthy of A Clockwork Orange. That's not just depressing, says Alsop, it's criminal. Her message to those kids is "hey, classical music is cool". And this: "You know, we live in a world of easy access, but nothing in life really comes easy. Learning to play a musical instrument is hard, but, as I learned from my own violin studies, the more you put in, the more you take out, the better you get. And that self-discipline crosses into everything you do in life." Or maybe that's one for the politicians.

Marin Alsop conducts Bernstein's `Trouble in Tahiti', Barber's `A Hand of Bridge' and Gershwin's `Blue Monday' at the Barbican, Silk St, London EC2, tonight at 8pm; and Steve Reich's `Desert Music' on 26 November. Box office: 0171- 638 8891