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Alsop takes the challenges of conducting in stride

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Marin Alsop always knew she was going to be a conductor. So the various things that others might see as obstacles were, to Alsop, barely bumps in the road. “It was just a matter of figuring out how to do it,” said Alsop, sitting outside the Benedict Music Tent, having just completed a rehearsal for the Aspen Chamber Symphony concert she will conduct on Friday, Aug. 15.

Instead of dwelling on any would-be difficulties, which Alsop shrugs off with her can-do attitude, she focuses on the early leg up she received in music. Alsop’s father retired not long ago after a 30-year stretch as concertmaster of the New York City Ballet; her mother remains a cellist with the same orchestra. The two instilled in Alsop not only a passion for music, but also the fortitude to pursue a career. “My folks were the kind of people, `Oh, you can do anything,'” said the New York City native.

Alsop seems intent on proving her parents correct. At Yale University and the Juilliard School, where she studied violin, Alsop would regularly corral fellow students – and her parents – into performances which she would conduct. Later on, while making a living in New York playing jingles and such, she founded the Concordia Orchestra to give herself frequent turns on the podium. Concordia finally ended its 18-year run, which included several annual concert series at Lincoln Center, last year. Alsop, who directed the organization through its entire existence, found she didn’t have sufficient time for Concordia any longer; her conducting career had become too busy.

“I saved all my money, played a lot of commercial jingles,” said Alsop, who studied with Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa and Gustav Meier at the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts, and won the 1989 Koussevitsky Conducting Prize there in 1989. “I earned a fairly decent amount of money, saved every dime, and founded an orchestra. It was a real education, not just in conducting but in learning how to run an orchestra.”

Alsop has put that education to the highest use. For the past decade, she has been music director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Last year, she was named principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, becoming the first woman to head a British symphony orchestra. She is director of the Cabrillo Festival, which stages four major contemporary-music concerts over two weeks each summer in Santa Cruz, Calif. During the last several years, Alsop has also made her debuts with the New York Philharmonic, when she conducted during the Copland Festival at Lincoln Center, and with Berlin’s Komische Oper, which led to her appointment as principal guest conductor. Next year, she will conduct John Adams’ “Nixon in China” at Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

Beyond that, Alsop’s career is up in the air. She has announced her resignation from the Colorado Symphony Orchestra effective next year; her current title is Music Director Laureate.

Creating the CSO

The Colorado Symphony Orchestra provided Alsop with an unusual set of challenges.

When Alsop took over as music director in 1993, the Colorado Symphony was an orchestra without a leader. The Denver Symphony, which had declared bankruptcy in the `’80s, reformed in 1989 as the Colorado Symphony. For four years, the orchestra had no director and was run by the musicians. As the first music director, Alsop stepped into an organization whose power came from the bottom.

“That was a huge growth curve. It was like taking a family business and turning it into a corporation,” she said.

Alsop says that the history has left its mark. Even after 10 years of her strong leadership, the CSO has a unique structure. “It’s musician-participatory. The governance comes with a lot of input from the musicians,” she said.

Alsop met the challenges. During her 10 years, the CSO’s budget has risen from less than $4 million to approximately $10 million. In a time where even well-established orchestras are struggling to stay afloat, or even shutting down, the CSO has no deficit and is run as a break-even operation.

The financial stability has come against a sometimes difficult backdrop. Denver, said Alsop, “is a city that doesn’t have a huge history of philanthropic giving. It’s a young city. It’s hard to build a long-term base for the orchestra, which is just what it needs now.”

Alsop also considers the CSO an artistic success. And though she doesn’t say so directly, the driving force in the rise of the CSO seems to have been nothing more than Alsop’s will.

“I love the orchestra,” she said. “I’m very proud of how it sounds now. It’s a first-rate orchestra, and that’s been achieved through setting the bar high and working hard. We’re filling openings with excellent players. I think consistently being on top of the game and pushing them further has made it a first-rate orchestra.”

The achievements of Alsop and the CSO have helped deflate the notion that Denver is a cultural backwater, a place where the sports world obliterates the arts scene. Alsop has no doubts that Denver is sports-crazed – “It’s not normal,” she says – but she adds that the arts do have a solid foothold in the city. Alsop, who lives in downtown Denver’s Capital Hill neighborhood, notes that the Denver Center for the Performing Arts is the second-largest arts complex in the country, and home to the Tony Award-winning Denver Center Theatre Company.

Alsop is uncertain what her next orchestra position will be. She is committed to conducting up to 12 weeks with the Bournemouth Symphony, and she hints that more and more of her career is centered in Europe. But she is contemplating remaining in Colorado no matter what her next job. And she adds that she isn’t in a huge rush to fill her time with conducting assignments. “I’m not of the belief that every single week of one’s life has to be filled with work. And I believe that more and more as I get older.”

Rouse on her mind

While Alsop is prominent on Colorado’s classical music landscape, her profile in Aspen has been considerably lower. She was a violin student here, of the late Dorothy DeLay, for one summer in 1974. On occasion, she will come from Denver to see violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg perform. Her last conducting appearance with the Aspen Music Festival was in 1990: “It seems to be every 13 or 14 years I come here,” she jokes.

One tie that Alsop has to Aspen is her relationship with Christopher Rouse, a composer-in-residence with the festival for the past several years. Alsop has recorded a CD of all Rouse material with the CSO, and also recorded Rouse’s work with her Concordia Orchestra.

“I’m happy to be introducing a lot of his work to British and European orchestras,” she said. “Apart from [Aspen Music Festival music director] David Zinman, I do the most of Rouse’s work.”

That trend continues this week. Along with Haydn’s Symphony No. 49 and Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings, Alsop will conduct the Aspen Festival Orchestra and flutist Martha Aarons in Rouse’s Flute Concerto, a work that Alsop cherishes. Rouse will give a preconcert talk at 5 p.m. at Harris Hall on Friday.

“Stunning,” says Alsop, the only female conductor on the Aspen Music Festival’s official summer program, of the piece. “Like a lot of Chris’ pieces, it’s a reaction to a current event.”

The current event Rouse responded to was the 1992 murder of a Liverpool toddler, 3-year-old James Bolger, by two 10-year-olds. “Chris was over there and listening to the news and was so traumatized by this incident – that children so young could be so cruel and corrupt.

“The middle piece, the elegy, is heartbreaking, a tribute to this boy. And other parts are Gaelic-sounding tunes, like jigs gone berserk. Like the familiar things you know aren’t quite so certain anymore.”

More music

The Aspen Music Festival season ends on a flurry of high notes.

A chamber music concert on Saturday, Aug. 16, will feature the world premiere of Dan Welcher’s “The Wind Won’t Listen, Fantasy for Bassoon and String Quartet,” as well as works by Bach, Hindemith and Mendelssohn.

The Aspen Opera Theater Center closes its season with the final performance of Berlioz’s “Beatrice et Benedict,” with conductor Michael Stern and director Edward Berkeley, on Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House. A special event that night at Harris Hall will have pianist Vladimir Feltsman playing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.”

The festival closes with David Zinman conducting the Aspen Festival Orchestra, tenor Lawrence Brownlee and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Choir in a performance of Berlioz’s requiem, “Grande messe des morts,” on Sunday, Aug. 17.


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