DATE March 18, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
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Interview: Marin Alsop discusses her career and new CD devoted to
music by Leonard Bernstein
TERRY GROSS, host:
In 2002, Marin Alsop became the first woman to become principal conductor of a
major British orchestra. After her first season with the Bournemouth Symphony
Orchestra, she received the conductor award from the Royal Philharmonic
Society. A review this year in the London Times described Alsop as a `subtle,
inspired builder of symphonic structures, the perfect guide and teacher.'
Alsop is American, and happily she's still conducting American orchestras and
remains the conductor of the Cabrillo Music Festival in Santa Cruz. Her first
recording with the Bournemouth Symphony was recently released. It's devoted
to music by Leonard Bernstein, who Alsop studied with at the Tanglewood Music
Center. The CD includes his three dance episodes from "On The Town," which he
adapted from his score for the Broadway show "On the Town," which he composed
in his mid-20s.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I asked Marin Alsop about studying and working with Leonard Bernstein,
and to illustrate how exciting it was, she told me this story.
Ms. MARIN ALSOP (Conductor): There's this gorgeous home that Koussevitzky
lived in up on the hill at Tanglewood, and before we'd get in front of the
orchestra, we would always work with two pianos, and they would play the
orchestral part. And that's where lessons would occur, you know, outside of
the orchestra sessions. And so Bernstein came there and walked in the room,
and, of course, it seemed like just hundreds of people in this tiny room, and
he said, you know, `Now where's Marin?' And I thought, `I have died and gone
to heaven. This just can't be happening.' And as soon as I started
conducting--it was the Roy Harris "Third Symphony," which is a piece that they
told me to learn five days earlier. Everything was very, very high pressure
there. And as soon as he started talking to me about the piece and conducting
and these kinds of things, I was completely relaxed. He was so generous and
so focused on what I was doing that I almost forgot he was Leonard Bernstein,
GROSS: You said that Bernstein was unpredictable and that he could really
embarrass you and that he was good at mind games. Can you give us a sense of
Ms. ALSOP: Sure. Oh, I would watch it all the time, but this was a person
that was extremely, I mean, so intelligent. I mean, he was so brilliant on
every single level. You know, he loved going through the Oxford English
Dictionary finding errors. I mean, when he found a mistake in the dictionary,
he was in a good mood for many days.
Ms. ALSOP: You know, not only the realm of his intelligence but just the
grasp of his knowledge was so far-reaching that he could make jokes and puns
that escaped every single other person in the room. So you had to be--you
know, it was a little bit like the Olympics. I mean, you had to be on top
form. And, of course, I think he would get a little bit bored sometimes, and
it's a little bit like toying with the mouse, you know? So he would try to
spice it up a little bit, and embarrassment sometimes fell into that realm.
But it was never so horrifying as to be really wounding. I mean, his nature
was so loving that it was never his intention, I don't think, to hurt anyone.
GROSS: Leonard Bernstein was very larger than life, and I think one of the
things that makes you special as a conductor is that you're so accessible and
communicative. Like, when--I've seen you at the podium several times at the
Cabrillo Music Festival in Santa Cruz, and you just kind of come out and you
talk to us in the audience. You tell us about the music you're going to play.
You make jokes about it. You dress, at least for that festival, very
casually. And you establish this very, very kind of direct communication with
the audience that is not only entertaining, but, speaking for myself, it makes
me hear things in the music--it allows me to hear things in the music I
probably wouldn't have noticed because you've pointed it out to me before
actually conducting the piece. So I'm wondering how you figured what kind of
personality to be at the podium, particularly having admired this
larger-than-life figure so much.
Ms. ALSOP: See, I believe really deeply that having authority has nothing to
do with the trappings of authority. My belief is that people know sincerity,
they know knowledge, they know intelligence and they know passion. And those
are qualities that must be unwavering as a conductor. And perhaps at first
they think, `Well, why is this person talking to us? You know, our other
conductors don't talk.' Or, `Why is this person wearing something a little
bit, you know, colorful? We're not allowed to have anything colorful,' or
whatever it is that seems contrary to the archetypal image of what a conductor
should be, and, oddly, people seem to have an archetypal image. And I think
by dispensing with some of those trappings, one can cut to the essence much
GROSS: Well, let's hear some music. I'd like to play an except of Leonard
Bernstein's score for "On The Waterfront," which you conduct on your recent CD
of Bernstein music. But I'd like you to kind of choose a passage from this
that you find particularly interesting as the conductor and to just talk a
little bit about what's going on to make that passage so interesting.
Ms. ALSOP: Sure. Well, this passage from "On The Waterfront" is this
fantastic fugue section, but unlike most fugues, this begins with a timpani
playing the tune. And then he has another timpani come in, so a second set of
timpani. And then he has the tom-toms come in playing the tune. I mean, not
many composers would, you know, have the chutzpa to have a feud that starts
melodically with the percussion. This is a fantastic unfolding. And for me,
the music is all about disquiet and unrest and something's not quite right
and, you know, this idea of suspense and what's about to happen.
GROSS: Well, that's a great description. Why don't we hear the passage that
you were just describing? And this is from Marin Alsop's recording of
Bernstein music, and this is the score from "On The Waterfront."
(Soundbite of "On The Waterfront")
GROSS: Music from "On The Waterfront" conducted by Marin Alsop from her
latest CD, her first as the principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony
Orchestra. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Marin Alsop. In 2002, she became the principal conductor
of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
Do you feel that being a woman conductor has become less of an issue as time
has gone by?
Ms. ALSOP: You know, the only perspective I have, of course, is this very
subjective personal experience. And I have really tried my entire career,
from, you know, being 18, 19 years old, never to interpret a rejection as
gender-based rejection because if I were to have done that, it would have
given me an excuse for everything. And I didn't want a very pat, kind of
simple excuse. So I have really consciously tried not to take in those
thoughts that, `Oh, perhaps this is because I'm a woman,' or, `Maybe they're
talking to me this way, and they wouldn't speak to a man that way.' I mean,
now that I'm at a certain stage in my career, I can sometimes see these
obvious things that happen that wouldn't happen if I were a man.
I mean, just the other day--you know, it's a very small thing, but I asked who
will be playing oboe in--the orchestra has guest conducting because the person
listed on my musician roster did not attend the first rehearsal. And the
personnel manager--I said, `Well, I'd just like to know who's going to play
because I'd like them to be at the rehearsals.' And then the next day the
oboes came to me and said that the personnel manager went to him and said I
was really upset; I was in a "tizzy," quote-unquote. Now, you know, you and I
know that if a man had inquired as to why the person listed was not attending
the rehearsal, he would not be described as `in a tizzy.' You know what I'm
GROSS: I know exactly what you're saying.
Ms. ALSOP: So these are strange things that have, you know--and I just sort
of laughed to myself that it's so obvious and so typical that it's just kind
of funny. But the woman issue, I mean, it comes up obviously a lot when I do
interviews and talk to people. And I try, as someone who is now successful in
this field, to really devote time to young women who are coming into the field
to talk about these issues because I think there are issues about being a
woman in a field that doesn't have many women in it still to this day that one
needs to look at if you are a young woman and thinking about going into the
GROSS: What are some of those issues?
Ms. ALSOP: Well, I think they all center around perceptions, and society's--I
mean, I'm as guilty as the next person. That's what the strange thing is.
We're just conditioned--society's conditioning about women's roles vs. men's
roles, so that, for example, if you're a woman and you make a certain gesture,
it's interpreted very, very differently from a man making the same gesture.
And, of course, conducting is all about gesture. So, you know, one of the
difficult things for me in starting out in the field was to be extremely
strong without appearing to be sort of overly aggressive as a woman; you know,
to try to be strong and have it be only about strength--you know, to get a big
sound from the brass, to get a huge dynamic range--without appearing to be
possessed as a woman. You know what I mean? As soon as you start trying to
be that huge person, I mean, people are frightened by a woman that does that.
They call her names, you know, that aren't very nice. When a man comes and
expresses the same kind of gestures, he's considered very strong.
So it's important as a young conductor even further on in one's career to
really assess the gesture and try to, in some way, degenderize it, so that
gesture is about emotion and it communicates emotion rather than association
to your gender.
GROSS: Do you ever wonder what would happen if you, like, walked away and had
the orchestra play on its own, like...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ...you know, how it would sound without you there?
Ms. ALSOP: Well, yes. I mean, most of the orchestras I conduct would
probably be perfectly fine. I mean, the level of playing of the orchestras I
conduct is so, so tremendously high. I mean, it's just world class. And
what's interesting is as you get more and more experience in front of the
orchestra, the great moments in the concerts, I think, are the moments when I
don't conduct very much, but I'm more sharing the experience with them than
literally, you know, going wild on the podium. So it becomes more of a shared
listening, and it's more about nuance than so much gesture. And often in
concerts at particular moments that seem right for the music, I won't conduct
very much at all.
GROSS: Marin Alsop. Her latest CD, which is devoted to music by Leonard
Bernstein, is her first recording since she became principal conductor of the
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. She continues to guest conduct American
orchestras and to conduct the Cabrillo Music Festival in Santa Cruz.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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