I recently spoke to Marin Alsop about the BSO's upcoming season and her priorities going forward. The 2009-2010 season is being touted as "a pastiche of musical influences from around the world and from within local communities. In this dramatic season, the concert programs are generated by Alsop’s mission to encourage audiences to explore their own musical roots and pay tribute to the diverse heritages found in the Baltimore-Washington area." It includes appearances by Lang Lang, Simone Dinnerstein, Andre Watts and Itzhak Perlman; "Ask Your Mama," a bold piece based on an epic Langston Hughes poem, featuring soprano Jessye Norman and hip-hop band The Roots; and a circus-themed festival that stretches over four weeks.
What's your greatest challenge at this point?
Keeping the excitement level up is the task at hand, to a certain degree. But that’s the fun of it. How do you keep the buzz going? My big philosophy is about maximizing every opportunity. Maybe that’s because I come from a background where opportunities were very few. I learned how to take every chance I had and build it into whatever possibility I could. So the themes and philosophy and vision that we’ve started with these last couple years about access, inclusion, and a sense of participation—I’m trying to push those things a little further in this upcoming season, so that every single person in our community can feel some sort of connection to the symphony. The idea is for it to be a celebration of our shared musical roots. If your ancestry is the German tradition, maybe you’ll be connected to Brahms. If you’re from England, maybe it will be Handel.
But this season stretches beyond the European tradition, in both populist and sophisticated ways.
I want everyone to feel the relevance and the bridge connecting them to symphonic music. One of the major challenges we have is to bring it back to the people. Classical music was a shared social experience for hundreds of years. Then, it became this elitist, ivory tower experience. Classical music has done a very poor job over the past few decades of enabling people to feel that they have a right to experience it. It’s been so elitist. If you clap between movements, somebody gives you a dirty look. Originally, when they played a Beethoven symphony people clapped through the whole thing. When they liked the tune, they clapped. I don’t know how we got so separated from the original intent. I want to get back to the shared social experience. If people can’t literally play instruments, I want them to feel they have a history, because everyone does, and a real deep connection to this music.
I also want to celebrate the diversity of our community, in terms of the immigrants that have settled here. I’ve been doing some research and finding out what immigrant groups settled in this area, and it’s been really fascinating. It’s been a historical adventure for me. We’re going to have folk groups playing at some of our subscription concerts and at our gala. We’re going to go out and interview people in the community and find out their musical stories. It’s going to be a fantastic communal experience. And that’s building on some of the philosophy we’ve been able to lay down over the last couple of years.
And you don't have to dumb it down, do you?
I’m opposed to this idea that you’re supposed to somehow water things down or dumb them down so people can have access. Our community today is so much more intelligent and so desirous of information. It’s a fantastic world to live in because people are a lot smarter. They can access information at their fingertips through the Internet and consequently they feel informed and entitled to information, which I think is the greatest gift of all. So when they come to a concert, I want them to access it on any level. Maybe they just want to come, close their eyes, and enjoy it. No problem. But maybe they want to visit our website and tour around. Maybe, as a subscriber, they want to pick up their program notes online or watch one of the webumentaries I’ve done. Maybe they want to stay after the concert for a question and answer period. We try to offer a whole menu of opportunities for you to step in wherever you feel the urge. But I think people are a lot smarter than we give them credit for, and a lot more curious.
[Image: Dave Hoffmann]