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Samuel Thompson

Inspiration - and Ominous Words

February 4, 2008 at 6:58 PM

In The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell speak of moments time during which we as humans are rendered speechless - the only thing usually said in those moments being "Ah...Oh..." As a musician I am grateful to have experienced many moments like that, and one of them was last night while listening to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

The BSO will be playing in Carnegie Hall on February 9, 2007 and, while presenting a different program from the one about which I write here, it was so inspiring and indeed humbling to hear one of the world's greatest ensembles in top musical form on the eve of such an important event, as this upcoming concert is also Marin Alsop's Carnegie Hall debut. On Saturday, February 2, 2008 the repertoire was all American: Duke Ellington's "Harlem", Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" and Mark O'Connor's "American Seasons" with Mr. O'Connor as soloist.

During the Ellington, I found myself fantasizing: would it not be amazing to hear this piece performed with the string section of any world-class orchestra and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra sitting in for the winds and brass? This dreaming of mine was not in any way a reaction to the musicmaking that I heard, as the players of the BSO delivered solid, convincing, and exciting performances of Ellington's riffs. "Appalachian Spring", a bit of a string showpiece, was equally as exciting, with solos played masterfully by Jonathan Carney, and the piece ended so peacefully - one could say that destiny was accomplished on Saturday night at the Meyerhoff. Mr. O'Connor's very free bowarm and joyful fiddling rounded out a splendid evening - a highlight of which included the audience almost clapping at the end of his improvised cadenza (yes, it was like being at a jazz concert!).

Having played under Ms. Alsop as a student, first at the National Orchestral Institute and later while a fellow at the New World Symphony, it has been thrilling to watch her career unfold, and I do have to say that both rehearsals and performances under her direction were quite thrilling and fulfilling. Nevertheless, it has been somewhat puzzling to read the various reactions to her tenure in Baltimore. In a recent article published in The Urbanite Magazine, former Baltimore Sun music critic Steve Wigler writes very candidly about the history of orchestras, orchestral funding, and the current situation of many of our nation's ensembles. While there are many enlightening points in Mr. Wigler's article, titled "Selling the BSO"- some that shed a much different perspective into contract negotiations that have taken place during the past ten years - Mr. Wigler speaks in a somewhat ominous manner when referring to Ms. Alsop's tenure in Baltimore as well as
"the orchestra as an institution." I invite you all to read and share your thoughts.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on February 4, 2008 at 9:51 PM
Sam, Thanks for sharing this article. I didn't see the performance, but from the description I think I would have enjoyed the Alsop-led performance of Kernis' music very much, and the conversation about it.

I think the article's author may be jumping the gun in his ominous predictions. He didn't like the way Alsop didn't use rubato, but without having heard the performance, I think it's possible that that's a thin and maybe even nit-picky criticism--one that he's certainly entitled to make, but not one that necessarily fortells orchestral doom. Similarly I think that his dismissing the roster of soloists engaged by the BSO this season--without having heard them--because he hasn't heard *of* them is premature at best.

I share his regret that arts education in public schools is so poorly funded. But I think that the Renaissance he wants will have to come in part from engaging more and new artists in the process--maybe even ones that he hasn't heard of and doesn't like.

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on February 5, 2008 at 2:41 AM

Thank you for such thoughtful responses. It's always difficult, these changes of leadership. However, while I do find myself agreeing with many of the points raised in the article about the business itself (and found the history of the 52-week season quite fascinating), it bothers me to hear what seem to be attacks on Ms. Alsop's ability.

In a December 2001 New York Times article, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director Robert Spano is described as "the music director for a new era: informal, hip, willing to press the flesh and mix with the common folks." In the article much is mentioned about the orchestra's search and vision, as well as the marketing strategies used by the symphony. Aboth those, Mr. Spano is quoted:

"''I can be effusive and social and gregarious if it will help us reach our goal,'' said Mr. Spano, who is single. ''I've actually learned to enjoy it. But it's a hard balance. I need to be sure the performances are good, and then I have to decide how much of my time will be spent ensuring that those performances are getting to the people we want to have hear them.''

While I'm not aware of any "questions" regarding Mr. Spano's leadership - and having played under him as well, at the International Festival-Institute at Round Top - it seems that he is doing much of the same as Ms. Alsop in Baltimore. Why people have chosen to subtly attack her is beyond my comprehension.

From Roy Sonne
Posted on February 5, 2008 at 2:58 AM
Mr. Wigler is right on in his comments about the state of affairs among Symphony Orchestras in the USA. And in fact world-wide. The supply greater than the demand, the ever-rising costs, the lack of new music which appeals to a broad public -- all these are the subjects of day-to-day discussion among Symphony managements and boards everywhere. Practically everyone agrees that the Symphony orchestra as we know it is less and less viable.

Mr. Wigler is also right on about the multi-faceted role of the music director and about Marin Alsop's superb ability to fill that role.

When it comes to his musical judgements Wigler is less convincing. In fact he comes across as arrogantly narrow-minded. Two thousand people were visibly excited and inspired by Alsop's Beethoven, but he found it uninspiring. And that worries him. I'd be worried too, for a different reason. I'd be worried that Mr. Wigler lacks the sensitivity to feel the musical inspiration that everybody around him felt.

Marin Alsop is a superbly qualified conductor. And yes, musically she's a little stiff but she's still growing. Just as her predecessor, David Zinman has grown from a brilliant technician into a superb artist. Ditto for Leonard Slatkin.

Temirkanov -- we played under him many times here in Pittsburgh -- is wonderfully free and creative -- but lacking in technical skill and attention to details of quality. He was a great guest conductor, but I feel that the level of an orchestra would go downhill long term with him.

Mr. Wigler's other "great conductors" -- Gunther Herbig is as square and pedantic as they come. Libor Pesek conducted us once. I can't remember anything about it. In other words -- not memorable!! Jan Pascal Tortelier is a brilliantly inspired conductor -- sometimes. When he is doing the right repertoire and when all the circumstances are just right he is overwhelming. then you can't wait for his next performance -- and you're sorely disappointed. Too bad!

Anyway, if you're interested in further reading on this subject, check out "Classical Music in America -- a History of it's Rise and Fall" by Joseph Horowitz.

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on February 5, 2008 at 4:07 AM
Roy - great post, thank you. I remember playing under Tortelier at New World. The program included "Daphnis and Chloe" and Dutilleux's "Metaboles." Pretty outstanding.

There was also an opportunity to see him earlier that year, with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Florida International Festival, and that was equally impressive.

All of that aside, thank you for your insights.

From Mitchell Pressman
Posted on February 5, 2008 at 2:36 PM
Roy, I'm just curious: Haven't you ever participated in (or at least seen) a classical performance that you knew to be uninspired or worse, and yet the audience reacted much more favorably than the performance merited (maybe awkwardly stated, but hopefully you know what I mean)?

I'm no music expert, but at classical concerts it does sometimes seem that the audiences will give almost anyone or anything a standing ovation. (except maybe when a "modern" work has been performed). Heck, I've stood up a few times myself when it probably wasn't deserved:)

But I do like Alsop. She is wonderfully charismatic (I liked Wigler's comparison to a boxer, she does have that kind of intense physicality) and audiences do love her.

She is also willing, in fact eager, to try new ideas. Alsop is recognizing that the modern orchestra has problems in connecting with the audience, and she's trying to do something about it. I have to salute her spirit and willingness to risk failure at times.

For example, the idea of having established composers conduct seems to me at least worth trying. I'm sure these folks won't come here just to make fools of themselves. And if someone goes to the entire series of concerts, it might be quite interesting to note how each of the contemporary composers "hears" Beethoven differently. And if it doesn't work, it's not like the world will come to an end.

From Roy Sonne
Posted on February 5, 2008 at 6:11 PM
Very good point!
Yes, of course I have been in that position. And often my first thought has been "what a bunch of idiots!" But usually I will go on to think, "Wait a minute. Is there something I'm missing." In any case, I would never insult an entire audience publicly as this critic has done.
Of course the audience always applauds and in some places there is an automatic standing ovation. Too bad! Personally I wish they would boo if that's the way they feel. But anyway, even in the era of automatic applause, when you are present for a lot of concerts in the same place with the same audience you get a feeling for their reaction. You get to know when they are truly excited or when the applause is pro forma.
On a related note, I have always been surprised at how the audience is always lukewarm for Strauss' Don Juan. We usually play it very well indeed and I find it an exciting colorful work, and yet the audience doesn't seem to care. this has been the case consistently for the last 30 years in concerts in every part of the world. On the other hand the audience always loves Ravel's Bolero which I can't stand. So -- go figure!!

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