BSO to Pass Baton To Marin Alsop

Marin Alsop has conducted the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra a number of times in recent years.
Marin Alsop has conducted the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra a number of times in recent years. (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 16, 2005

Marin Alsop, one of the first women to achieve eminence in the overwhelmingly male field of orchestral conducting, will become the next music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra when Yuri Temirkanov steps down at the end of the 2006-07 season, pending approval by the BSO board.

This will be the first time that a woman has been chosen to head a major American symphony orchestra. Because of Alsop's already-busy schedule, she will not be in Baltimore full time until 2007-08. No details were yet available on her salary or the length of her appointment.

The Baltimore Sun reported yesterday that Alsop was expected to be named to the post. James Glicker, president of the Baltimore Symphony, took no issue with the thrust of the story but called it "premature." He added, "We haven't hashed out the agreement and we are certainly not going to announce anything until the board has voted to approve the appointment, both in its concept and in the details." Glicker said the board would meet Tuesday.

Still, sources close to the BSO said that it was unlikely that Alsop's appointment would be held up. "I think she's a fantastic artist and that she'll make a wonderful music director if she is approved," Glicker said.

Alsop, 48, is music director of the Bournemouth Symphony in England. Her past positions have included the Colorado Symphony, the Eugene (Ore.) Symphony and the Long Island Philharmonic. She has made a number of recordings, mostly for the Naxos label.

The daughter of professional musicians, Alsop was born in New York and grew up there and in Westchester County. She took her first lessons at the Juilliard School in the preparatory division, attended Yale University and then established herself as a freelance violinist in the early 1980s. "I played a lot of commercials, record dates, that sort of thing," she said in a 1990 interview. But her hero, and later her mentor, was Leonard Bernstein. "I saw him conduct -- probably at one of the Young People's Concerts -- and that was it. I thought he was so cool."

And so Alsop began to teach herself conducting. "I would watch every conductor I played under, not only to follow his beat but also to find out his secrets. If I liked his work a lot, I'd ask for a quick lesson." With the help of friends, she put together a group she called Concordia -- a Chamber Symphony With a Touch of Jazz, which played its first concert in New York in December 1984.

"That one evening cost me $10,000 -- all I had -- but it was worth it," she later recalled. "I got to lead Mozart's 29th Symphony, Stravinsky's 'Dumbarton Oaks,' the Bartok Divertimento and some jazz works. It was a beginning."

In 1988, Alsop attended Bernstein's conducting seminar at Tanglewood, where she became the hit of the summer, leading the all-student orchestra. Her showpiece was the Symphony No. 3 by Roy Harris. Critics from around the world had descended on Tanglewood that summer to celebrate Bernstein's 70th birthday, but in many cases they found themselves writing about Alsop instead.

With the Baltimore Symphony now playing a subscription series at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda and increasingly challenging the National Symphony Orchestra on its own turf, it is interesting to note that Alsop's tastes are remarkably similar to those of the NSO's music director, Leonard Slatkin. As with Slatkin, she specializes in American music, much of it conservative or jazz-based. She has made recordings of works by Samuel Barber and Bernstein, among others -- both of them Slatkin favorites.

"I love American music," she said in 1990. "It is straightforward, even naive sometimes. Even our most complicated music retains a certain earnestness that European music doesn't always have. What we say is what we mean, and we don't have to hide behind needless complexities to get it across."

Alsop will have some important challenges in Baltimore. The orchestra has an accumulated deficit of about $10 million. And her recent performances in Baltimore have not been universally hailed by either the critics or some members of the orchestra. In May, Glicker said that opinions in the orchestra about potential candidates to replace the conservative, very "old world" Temirkanov were "volatile." Alsop's appointment will mark a huge change for all concerned.

Alsop is among the most prominent conductors in the world, regardless of gender. She is scheduled to lead two BSO programs next year, including the grand finale. And now -- all those years after forming her own ensemble so she could teach herself to conduct -- Alsop will finally have an American orchestra she can call, and make, her own.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company