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Marin Alsop: Exclusive Interview (August 20, 2009)

Leonard Bernstein: Mass
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop

CDs: 2
Tracks: 32

Rel. 25 Aug 2009

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On Thursday, August 20, our Artistic Director, Dr. Nolan Gasser, caught up with acclaimed Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conductor, Marin Alsop, to discuss her recent Naxos release of Leonard Bernstein's Mass. Maestro Alsop had likewise just completed her 18th season as music director for the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, California, which along with continuing associations with the Colorado (Conductor Laureate) and Bournemouth (Conductor Emeritus) Symphonies, not to mention an active guest-conducting schedule around the world, make her among the most active and celebrated conductors today. In this exclusive Classical Archives interview, Dr. Gasser speaks with Maestro Alsop about the Bernstein Mass, her relationship with contemporary music, the use of New Media to build a classical audience, and much more.

“I do think that Mass was on some level his Mahler 8. The idea of bringing together all the philosophy – all the existential questions...”

  • Nolan Gasser: You've been living with the Bernstein Mass quite a bit lately, and having some pretty stellar performances – the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, Harlem's Palace Theater, and Baltimore's Meyerhoff Auditorium, where the Naxos CD was recorded. Now that it's somewhat behind you, how you would characterize the experience you've had bringing this rather Byzantine piece to life – musically and spiritually?

  • Marin Alsop

    Marin Alsop: I first performed Mass in 1996 as I was leaving the Eugene Symphony. They said I could do any piece that I wanted in the world, and I picked that piece. It was lovely – it was my last concert with them as music director. So it's a piece that I've lived with for quite a while. I've done performances of it at Cabrillo, in Colorado, in London, in Los Angeles. So it's a piece that I felt very close to even before I did the piece, just knowing Bernstein's feelings about it. But, I think having lived with it and gone through many different types of productions and different experiences with different communities, I felt really ready to record the piece. So, it's been a great journey, but it certainly wasn't just this past year. It's been a decade long journey, I think.

  • NG: I read that you initially had interest in performing the piece back in the late 1980s or early 90s. So the first performance you did was with the Eugene Symphony in the mid-90s?

  • MA: Right, exactly. It was a piece that Bernstein didn't speak frequently or very willingly about. It felt a little bit like a taboo. I think he was very protective of the piece and on some level very fundamentally hurt by the critical lack of acceptance, even though the public acceptance was fantastic. I think it was a microcosm of so many of the issues that he faced in life, being more gifted than people could accept. If he wrote serious music they said it was trying too hard and being too cerebral, if he wrote popular music he was trying to be too hip. I mean, the guy couldn't win, no matter what he did.

  • NG: It brings to mind Sondheim's paraphrase of "Poor Jenny", as "Poor Lenny". He was too good at doing too many things.

  • MA: Yeah, absolutely. I was actually at that birthday celebration. Stephen re-wrote that "Poor Jenny" song [from Kurt Weill's The Saga of Jenny] for Bernstein's 70th birthday at Tanglewood [in 1988]. "Poor Lenny, ten gifts too many..." It was hysterical; it was so true. I do think that Mass was on some level his Mahler [Symphony No.] 8. The idea of bringing together all the philosophy – all the existential questions... As many forces both of nature, of music, of vocal writing... In so many ways this was his pinnacle work. And I really believe in it, I really believe it stands up. It's interesting to hear people have the same issues with it today as they did 38 years ago. I don't find those issues. They don't ring true for me anyway.

  • NG: I hadn't really thought about a comparison to Mahler, but obviously thinking of it as a world unto itself, and given Bernstein's own personal passion for Mahler, that makes a very apt comparison. Do you almost get the sense – given, as you say, it was a somewhat taboo subject and that he was hurt by the lack of critical acceptance – that he in some ways felt that Mass was his magnum opus, that it was able to speak to his core beliefs and core notions as a composer in a way that the symphonies, for example, were not?

  • MA: Oh definitely. He was able to really bring together all these different worlds of music that he loved. Given the ideals of his politics, and being a social activist and humanitarian, religion plays a huge role. So, I think this was a perfect framework for him to explore all of these questions that manifest themselves in every other piece he writes as well. He always said, "I spend my whole life writing one piece." And I think ultimately he was writing Mass.

  • NG: Yes, that's a great quote, and I think it's very true for many composers. So, sticking with this notion of the place of Mass: Do you think that we are coming to a point where Mass is entering a new sense of presence and place in the canon, not only of Bernstein's music, or American music, but of 20th century music in general? And do you think that this is doing something to affect the overall image of Bernstein as a composer?

  • Marin Alsop MA: I think that logistically, people are much less afraid of the piece now. I think there were some very basic technical hurdles that were almost insurmountable until I started doing the piece in the 1990s, when they produced a brand new set of legible parts for us to work with, and the materials were updated. Prior to that they had been working off the original manuscript, which as you probably recall, was very down to the wire last minute changes. I think it was quite a mess. It's a daunting prospect to deal with 200 or 300 performers onstage, but then when your materials are illegible and indecipherable, I think it makes it impossible. So, when they re-did the materials, I think in many ways my willingness to do the piece many times and the success of those performances, gave people courage, and at least someone to talk to who had been through the Mass experience. I know it had been programmed many times and cancelled almost every time prior to that. It's a very big expense. I think that on a practical level there have been many hurdles to overcome. It's a very difficult piece to cast as well, even if you have a lot of non-professionals. For the street singers you need very specific voices and they can't be people who don't read music, yet your traditional opera singers aren't going to work. So, just like with West Side Story, it really changed the way we think of casting for any kind of theatrical production. Today, we have much more versatile singers and actors than we did even 15 years ago. And people are much more willing to be adventurous in crossing boundaries. Crossover music is almost passé now. And 15 years ago – 20 years ago – it was just on the fringe of being accepted. So, I think for all these reasons, it's having a new life – which is great.

  • NG: In 1971, the number of critics or performers for that matter that had been raised on rock and roll, or rhythm and blues, was very small, whereas most successful opera or concert singers today, like Jubilant Sykes [the lead in the Alsop reading of Mass] have it in their bodies. They know these styles as well as they know Mozart and Verdi.

  • MA: [Laughs] Right, exactly. You know, I think the production value shows and the intricacy and the mixing of media... now it's just part of everyday life. When he wrote this in 1971, it was really avant-garde stuff.

  • NG: It's clearly a tremendous logistical challenge (some 250 performers), not to mention a musical potpourri, or a giant quodlibet: from jazzy 7/8 –time Broadway ("God Said"), to late 1960s-style rock ("I Don't Know"), a full brass band ("Prefatory Prayers"), to Lutoslawski-like symphonic writing ("Epiphany"), etc. How has it been working through these challenges – both on the administrative side and the musical side, for example, how would you characterize the attitude of the BSO members to the work?

  • MA: This last time doing the piece with the Baltimore Symphony, I was very moved by the musicians' level of engagement and also their overt appreciation for the piece and for the project. They absolutely loved it! And every day that we did it – it became like a mini tour that we took to Carnegie and Kennedy Center – I think it just kept growing on them, and they kept on hearing more and more things. So, I have to say that I've never had any resistance from the musicians. They're always very curious about it. "Wow, this is a great piece..." Because they, like so many people, have been living under this cloud about [Mass]... it's amazing what a hangover of negative criticism can do. Even if you've never heard the piece you get this preconception about it. But the musicians became very open to it. On a practical and administrative level, though, it's a small nightmare, certainly. Because you have the children's chorus, you have the seated chorus; you have 16-20 street singers, who are all individuals yet they have to work as a unit. And often there's a dance element. And a marching band: always a nightmare...

  • NG: It's like a circus.

  • MA: Well, the one thing that I have down pat now is, I know how long it takes to do the piece! Almost down to the minute basically of how much time we need. I've found that it's very successful methodology to divide it up and work with each of the different elements and don't try to combine everything until quite a bit near the end of it. My good friend Leslie Stifelman, who is the music director of Chicago on Broadway, she did the casting for me this time out of New York. And she prepared them and really helped. And having someone like that I highly recommend now to everybody.

  • NG: You mentioned Mahler earlier, and thinking of the similarities of Bernstein being this champion of Mahler when other people were ready to write him off, and bringing his symphonies back to Vienna... Now, you are becoming the authority maestro of Bernstein's Mass, and bringing it back to the Kennedy Center...

  • MA: Gosh, I don't know about that...

  • NG: I wonder if now that you've performed Mass so many times and recorded it – have you said everything you can say with this piece? Are you planning other performances?

  • MA: I hope so [laughs]: I have another big performance of it coming up as a culmination of a year-long Bernstein project at the Southbank Center in London. This will be next July. The year-long project kicks of Sept 20th. It's a fascinating way that we're approaching Mass this time, because we're not really formulating a production of it. We're letting it develop through all the events we're doing and through the various community constituents that want to participate. So it should be really interesting, just a different approach. Rather than putting a grid or a formula of a concept on to it, we're letting it grow over an entire year. I'm working with a national youth orchestra, so there are going to be a lot of young people involved in it too.

  • NG: Is that going to be recorded as a DVD?

  • MA: Hmm, I don't know, we'll see what happens. We just got the kick-off event into gear. There are about 15 to 20 events over the whole year.

  • NG: As an aside, the text of this obliquely Catholic para-liturgical work was by Stephen Schwartz. Stephen now of course has written his own opera, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, to be premiered next month. Did you work with him at all on Mass, and have you discussed any possible future performance of Séance?

  • MA: I'd be very interested in that certainly. Stephen and I have been in touch quite a lot. Because everything had been so last minute with Mass, he went back and wasn't 100% happy with some of the lyrics. When I did it with the Los Angeles Philharmonic a couple years ago, he revised a lot of the lyrics. But for this recording project, I went back and spoke with Jamie and Alex – Bernstein's children – just trying to figure out what lyrics Bernstein himself would have been happy with. Even though Stephen's revisions are brilliant – he's such a smart guy – I think without having Bernstein around to give input, I was uncomfortable with recording this new version. And Bernstein was all about words and he loved participating in developing the lyrics. And you know, in West Side Story, as Sondheim would say, Bernstein was much more than a partner in that. So, I went back to the 1981 version, sort of the last version that Stephen and Bernstein together revised. But, I'm certainly open to it, and I know Stephen's been interested in doing even further revisions. The problem is if you keep revising, you sometimes get too smart for your own good. So, that's what I think might be starting to happen – that you re-think it too many times. That it's so clever that it's not clever anymore.

  • NG: Indeed. So, moving on to some other topics – though staying a bit on the subject of American music. You've obviously taken on the mantle of becoming a champion of contemporary American music (as indeed contemporary music from around the world), especially via the Cabrillo Festival, but also through your work with the BSO, the Colorado and Bournemouth Symphonies, and others. First, I'm wondering what it was that first drew you to become so involved with new music – was it the impact of your association with Bernstein, was it your own inherent musical predilections, was it an opportunity to fill a much-needed gap – or all the above?

  • MA: I think that I became interested in new music when I was pretty young. While I was an undergraduate at Yale I played with Steve Reich's ensemble. I was 17 and I would drive down from New Haven every week. I sort of got hooked into the new music scene a little bit, especially the Minimalist [School]. Later, I played with Philip Glass' Ensemble. I played electric violin. But then I started doing a lot of gigs with new music. I think when you get hooked into the whole scene of knowing composers, it's so exciting and it feels so relevant. I think that just carried over when I made the transition from a player to a conductor. I have very defined tastes, but I'm curious about all kinds of new music that's written. And Cabrillo has been a perfect outlet for my interests and also for me to grow, in terms of getting to know new composers and developing an audience for new music. It's been a great place to experiment.

  • NG: You've now led the Cabrillo Festival for 18 seasons, that's a lot of years and a lot of new works. And of course you've programmed lots of contemporary music with the other orchestras you've led. Can you talk about some of the trends you're seeing lately – both in the works themselves and in the audiences' reactions – esp. here in the US? How are composers in your view reflecting the early 21st century?

  • MA: The trend, I think, has been in reaction to the inaccessibility of contemporary music in the 1970s. Perhaps some of the new music has gone to the opposite extreme in terms of being too accessible. I'm not really sure when "accessible" became a pejorative. I'm accused often of programming accessible new music. It's a silly comment really. I do think that generally composers have been thinking about audiences more. And they've been willing to lower the boundaries between various genres more readily, especially in America. I think in Europe it's still somewhat intellectualized - and perhaps less accessible. Gross generalizations, of course. We have composers this year from all over the world, which was really exciting. And what they all commented on was how different all of their music is. And they really enjoyed being around each other: from [Osvaldo] Golijov to Brett Dean to Avner Dorman from Israel... They all felt they have something different to say. They have a different vocabulary, a different language... And yet they can learn from each other. And what I realized, seeing them all together, is that there isn't a sense of "globalization" in terms of composers; there really isn't a network or a crossover they have easy access to, and so Cabrillo can be a place where that can happen. Where a Magnus Lindberg piece can be played next to one by Avner Dorman... Culturally, you can actually hear the difference. So, that's exciting to me, because I worry travelling the world that sometimes things lose their third dimension, if not their fourth dimension and become a little bit flat in terms of character.

  • NG: Yet, even though the distinctions of one culture and another are being maintained would you say that within the context of maintaining distinctions there is also an overall trend across the board towards more "accessible" art music?

  • MA: I think so as a general rule... if I had to say something about new music, I would probably say that. But at the same time, I'm always excited to discover new composers with new views and new styles and new ways of doing things. So, I think I'm very open to whatever comes down the way. I think in the 21st century we're going to see a lot more experimentation. In terms of the orchestra, things continue to grow in complexity: especially with electronic instruments – that's reached a whole new level with technology. And the percussion section continues to grow – you'd think it couldn't get any weirder, but it does! And that's fun – a lot of fun.

  • NG: Since taking the helm of BSO – and congratulations on your extended contract – you've taken on a number of initiatives, particularly involving the web and technology – your "webumentary" film series (which are very nicely done), the podcasts, the concert on XM radio... I assume this stems from your own ideas about the importance of using new Media to attract a wider audience?

  • MA: I think there's a bottom line with that too. Technology is there to be utilized, to support the art, but not to be invasive. At least that's my philosophy. I think that we live in a time where people have much more eclectic tastes. They're willing to try something, but just try it; they're very savvy. We have to make classical music accessible to a wider audience – and as exciting as possible. These are just tools really to use, they're not an end unto themselves. And for me, I'm trying to think about what happens after CDs, where are we headed – those kinds of things. And so, I'm very keen to try to stay a little bit ahead of the curve in terms of forward thinking and what the future holds.

  • NG: Yes, I think it's obviously about being smart. You need to keep exciting a younger generation. The San Francisco Opera simulcasts some of their performances, and offers free attendance at Pac Bell Park, and they're getting 20,000 plus people at a shot. David Gockley, the executive director of SF Opera, says it's basically about getting a younger generation turned on to opera.

  • MA: But what we see from this is that a lot is dependent on the presentation, which shouldn't be a barrier. When we go onstage and we dress like we're going to a funeral and we sit like Stonehenge, it's not that hip an experience. But when you can go and watch a Metropolitan [Opera] broadcast and you get up close and you see the expressions, and then you get to go behind the scenes and you get the interviews... this is what technology does for us. It enables us to offer people those behind the scenes and being a part. People want to participate much more these days. And they have a lot more knowledge, in my opinion, than they did just 10 years ago. So, we have to feed that interest and desire.

  • NG: I'm assuming that it's working. Orchestras around the country are having their challenges fiscally. And so I'm assuming that things are going well in Baltimore thanks to your initiatives and those of your colleagues?

  • MA: It's a struggle, I think. It's a financial struggle. We're all in this together, this economic crunch. But it can't be about the money. I mean if we're doing this and it's dependent on the money, it's never going to be right. In some ways I believe that ultimately these kinds of cycles, where we have to cut back and make sacrifices, enable us to be better artists because we are reconnected with the passion of why we became artists in the first place, and why we can't do anything else. So, I don't know, maybe I'm the ultimate optimist. I try to look at this all for the best.

  • NG: I think you have to be an optimist to be in the classical music world.

  • MA: Yes, that's true.

  • NG: You've stated your personal disdain for boxes, or being put in one, and you've quite successfully managed to move beyond the box of a new music conductor to now include being a standard rep conductor, an opera conductor, etc. What big projects lie ahead, either recording or performance?

  • MA: I continue this very rewarding relationship with Naxos Records. We're going to be embarking on a Prokofiev cycle very soon. That will probably begin in [the] 10/11 [season]. At the moment we're finishing up a Dvořák cycle, and working on many other ideas together. And then I have these global projects that I'm going to be bringing – starting in [the] 11/12 and 12/13 [seasons]. It's the same idea of having a year-long theme and really going into it in depth, like I'm doing with the Bernstein project. Because it's not just his repertoire – it's a philosophical approach. We're doing things like Mozart's 40th [Symphony] with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, where I'm going to recreate [Bernstein's] Harvard lecture about symmetry and syntax, and these kinds of things. So, I'm thinking bigger scale projects that can have a huge digital component and people can participate in and learn from and have discussions... So, that's where I'm headed.

  • NG: Well it all sounds very exciting, and we'll look forward to featuring all of your upcoming projects here at the Classical Archives. Thanks, Marin, I look forward to talking with you again.

  • MA: I look forward to it as well.

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