One of the great communicators and visionaries of the classical music world today, Marin Alsop has helped define the sound of the 21st century through her unflagging championship of new music as the head of major orchestras in the US, South America, and Europe. She shares stories about some of her favorite works in the B&H catalog, and describes what particularly draws her to the music of Anna Clyne, James MacMillan, Christopher Rouse, and more.
> Listen to Alsop’s "Performer Picks" playlist on Spotify.
> Watch a video excerpt of our interview, in which Alsop describes the first time she heard Christopher Rouse’s Concerto per Corde.
1. Anna Clyne, Masquerade
I first encountered Anna Clyne when I invited her to the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music about 10 years ago. I was really drawn to her individual voice. She’s a unique artist who likes to combine a lot of elements: often the pieces she writes are not just for musicians, but also for dance, or there is an extramusical component. I try to work with Anna as frequently as I can—she’s someone I can call and say, “I have this crazy idea. Do you want to be involved?” And she’ll say, “Count me in, definitely.”
When I was invited by the BBC Proms to conduct the Last Night of the Proms in 2013, they asked if I had a composer in mind for them to commission for the opening work. Anna immediately came to mind because of her unique voice, the fact that she’s British, and because I thought that she could write a piece that would really reach out and grab the audience. And she wrote a phenomenal piece called Masquerade. It is a tour-de-force for the orchestra—extremely virtuosic and very splashy. You can hear the Scottish roots going through it, the fiddling tunes. It went down so well at the Proms, and it’s great that we now have it commemorated on disc, as well.
> Listen to Masquerade
BBC Symphony Orchestra and Marin Alsop
2. James MacMillan, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
The Confession of Isobel Gowdie is a piece that I’ve taken around the world with me. It speaks to me not just musically, but also in its theme of unjust accusation and the punishment of people who can’t defend themselves. The piece pays tribute to the thousands of women who were put to death under false pretenses for being witches, being possessed, or being whatever other kinds of crazy things people would drum up. By looking at this issue through one individual’s situation, it personalizes the issue and brings it to life. You learn about this woman’s story and hear her voice; there’s a weeping glissando that happens over and over in the strings—a kind of yearning, longing, and sadness that’s heard throughout. And then of course there’s the brutality she had to experience, which we hear in a heavily rhythmic section.
I find the piece to be very emotional and personal, and for these reasons, it’s a piece I’ve done many times. I haven’t done it now in probably six or eight years, and looking ahead to my schedule next year, I see I’ve programmed it probably half a dozen times because I miss the piece—it’s one of those works that I yearn to do. And getting to know Jimmy over the years has been a real joy as well. I’m drawn to artists who feel a compulsion and obligation to be citizens of the world, and he is a great citizen of the world.
> Listen to The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
London Philharmonic Orchestra and Marin Alsop
3. Lera Auerbach, Eve’s Lament
I’m really happy to speak about a composer who is new to me: Lera Auerbach. I came to know her music after I was appointed Chief Conductor of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, because my Intendant suggested we consider her for a commission for my opening concert. When I did my research, I found her to be a fascinating composer. She’s a conductor. She’s a performer. She’s an author—she gave me one of her books. She’s just one of those super-talented people.
This piece, Eve’s Lament, is so beautiful, so effective, and so evocative. It’s also inspired by an external narrative, but she brings a lot of her own experience into it. There’s a subtext about feminism that isn’t overt, but since she and I spoke a lot I know it’s in there and it’s like a private discussion, in a way. I admire that Lera is willing to stand up and speak about gender inequality, and this piece is a subtle manifestation of that.
What I particularly love about this piece is its blending of the old world with the present world: She has solos from the back of the strings and the back of the orchestra, which seem to be memories or dreams coming from afar. She insisted on using an ondes Martenot, too, and it’s woven in as a singing voice—it’s spectacular. The piece is effective on every level.
4. Aaron Copland, Symphony No. 3
Copland’s Third Symphony is a big party piece for me, a real virtuoso piece for orchestra. I think it may have the highest tessitura in every section of any piece ever composed. It’s almost out of human hearing—you feel like all the dogs are going to come running, everything’s so incredibly high. It makes it very challenging because you have to find a good balance and work hard on the intonation. It’s a little bit like playing a baseball game when everybody’s on a tightrope! That’s what it feels like to go through this piece.
The story behind the piece is that when Copland received this commission, he went back to his Fanfare for the Common Man, which he had written previously. He took that three-minute fanfare and looked at its DNA—the intervals, the instrumentation, the shape, the phrasing, the color, the tune—and he built an entire symphony from those three minutes of material, which is pretty formidable. He’s a master at manipulating musical material and spinning it out, very much along the lines of Beethoven using a small amount of material brilliantly.
So, this piece has become a very close friend to me; I’ve done it throughout my career and grown along with the piece. It was only in the last 15 years or so that I decided to revisit the original ending of the piece. Bernstein felt that the ending was too long, and had suggested a cut to Copland, and now that’s typically the way the piece is performed. But when I went back to look at the original, I felt that, structurally, the piece could use the extension. So now when I perform the Third Symphony, I perform it in the original version—I don’t think it makes the brass very happy because they have to blast away for even longer!—but musically it really brings the piece home.
5. John Adams, Fearful Symmetries
If I were on “Name That Tune” and John Adams came up, I think I could name that tune in three notes! John is a very dear friend and, I think, one of the greatest composers of all time, as well as a super human being. When I began my tenure with the Baltimore Symphony, which I’m finishing up during this very strange year, the very first piece I did as music director was Fearful Symmetries. It’s a piece that is fresh; it’s got a completely different sound world, with a lot of saxophones, and it’s got an incredible groove to it. All these elements are part and parcel of John’s writing—he’s able to write a great melody, but then a great dance tune too.
Every time John writes a new piece, I’m over the moon—I can’t wait to do it. When I finished my tenure at the Cabrillo Festival, he wrote a piece for me called Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance, which is a very short piece from his most recent opera. He just finished revising the ending and I was supposed to premiere it, but then COVID happened. So I can’t wait! I have this John Adams world premiere that I’m holding in my back pocket for when the sun comes out. And that’s how I feel about his music: it’s music that I hold close for when the sun comes out.
6. Christopher Rouse, Concerto per corde
Christopher Rouse is a very special composer to me. I was, of course, initially drawn to his music. Long before meeting him, I heard a concert recording of his Trombone Concerto, and I flipped out. I thought, this is wild and crazy music, and I love it! So I programmed it during one of my first seasons at Cabrillo.
When I met Chris, he wasn’t anything like I thought he would be. He was such an amalgam of contrasts: he was the most well-read person I’ve ever met—his knowledge of everything, of the world, was encyclopedic—yet he refused to miss his soap opera every day. And then he would say, “Listen, could you schedule my piece on a different day? That’s my annual trip to Disney.” So, here’s this guy who could speak to me about Socrates and Kant and Orff’s little-known works—I mean, unbelievable things—and he had to get to Disney World. That was just part of his existence, this combination of highbrow and lowbrow.
Knowing a little bit about Chris gives people insight into his music—this idea that very, very different worlds can live simultaneously, juxtaposed, almost colliding, but somehow working together. His piece Concerto per corde (Concerto for strings) would be a great piece for people to program in these COVID times—it’s reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for strings. But it has a dissonant, gnarly character, an almost manic quality that Chris’s music often has—it’s driven music.
The first time I listened to Concerto per corde, I thought, “Oh, yeah, that’s so cool.” You know, really dissonant, really edgy. And suddenly the piece opens up into a Mahlerian section with lush diatonic harmonies and beautiful sweeping lines. It was so unexpected—I was listening while driving, and I had to pull over because I started sobbing. It moved me so much.
And that is what Chris’s music always does for me. It plumbs the depths of the unexpected and takes these turns that you never dreamt would happen. For a guy who was pretty much an introvert and didn’t share a lot (at least at first), it tells you his deepest secrets. It’s a privilege for any conductor to access a piece like that.
> Listen to Concerto per Corde
Concordia Orchestra and Marin Alsop
7. Christopher Rouse, Rapture
When Chris first told me about Rapture, he said, “Well, I have to apologize because this piece is quite upbeat.” [Laughs.] And I said, “You don’t have to apologize for that.” He said, “No, it was supposed to be a 30-minute commission, and I was starting from the depths of despair. But then they cut it to a 15-minute commission, so I just started halfway in.” [Laughs.] I was cracking up! I mean, I’m sure that wasn’t really true.
This is a piece about ecstasy and a spiritual kind of connection and revelation. I don’t know if Chris would describe it as a spiritual piece, but I think it is. It starts quietly, like many of his pieces do, but it ends with a beautiful prayer. It’s also extremely extroverted, with beautiful orchestration—lots of colors, lots of bells, and percussion, of course. Chris adores percussion.
I’ve never done pieces that stretch the orchestra to the degree that Chris Rouse did, whether in terms of technical challenges or in terms of volume. I can’t tell you how many times I would stop and say, “Do you have any comments, Chris?” And he would say, “It could be a lot louder.” So often when I’ve recorded his works, I’ve had the brass stand up to play into the mics. Finally, there was one moment when Chris said, “Okay. That’s loud enough.” I thought, I’m going to mark this day down, because that was a good moment for me!
But I hope, wherever he is, Chris hears that I’m still playing his music as loud as I possibly can.
8. Leonard Bernstein, Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety”
I had the incredible privilege of studying with Leonard Bernstein near the end of his life. He was the reason I wanted to become a conductor: I saw him conduct when I was nine years old, and I decided then, “This guy’s having a really good time. I’m going to do what he’s doing.” Becoming his student was a dream come true for me. And, of course, I had long admired his music.
I myself love jazz and had a swing band for 20 years called String Fever, so I was always drawn to pieces like West Side Story and all his Broadway crossover pieces. Then as I started conducting, I started exploring his “serious” music and found it to be a wealth of work unlike anything else. He wrote three symphonies, and not one of them is really a symphony in the traditional sense of the word.
His Second Symphony, “The Age of Anxiety,” is a musical interpretation of an epic poem by W.H. Auden of the same title that was written after the war, about universal loneliness and how people can’t connect. I think it’s a piece that’s very appropriate for the time that we’re living in, where we feel isolated and separated from each other.
Bernstein takes the underlying story of this poem, these little vignettes, and conveys them musically. The piece begins with two clarinets trying to find each other and not really quite succeeding. It’s amazing how you can convey an idea so beautifully through the color of the instruments you pick, through the counterpoint you select. And Bernstein is a master at it.
The second part of the piece begins with a 12-tone row outlined by the pianist, who plays the protagonist. This is a hallmark of Bernstein’s music, the way he uses serial music—12-tone music—to represent a moment of crisis, because Bernstein believed very much in diatonic music; he believed that writing a beautiful melody was essential. So atonality becomes a character representing the crisis of the century, the crisis of faith, the crisis of the characters in the poem.
Leonard Bernstein was the best storyteller of all time. Not only could he tell his own story, but he could take the story of another master storyteller, and then retell it in music, and that’s what he’s doing in this piece.
> Listen to Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety”
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano / Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Marin Alsop
Photo: Adriane White
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