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She's at the top of her field, and coming to Tanglewood

Alumna Marin Alsop returns to conduct an impressive program

By Richard Dyer
Globe Staff / June 5, 2005

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The winds of change are blowing through Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home and America's largest and most prestigious summer music festival and school. There is a new boss for the first time in more than three decades: James Levine, who will be there for more than a month, conduct five concerts, teach, nose around, and probably begin to shake things up.

One signal of change during the Levine era will be the BSO debut of Marin Alsop, now probably the most important woman conductor on the international scene. There are many other gifted women conducting in prominent positions and venues, more today than at any previous time -- Emmanuelle Haim, Simone Young, JoAnn Falletta, Jane Glover, and Gisele Ben-Dor, among others -- but Alsop seems to have crashed through the glass ceiling more completely than the others and soared higher above it. She is an alumna of the Tanglewood Music Center, so her Aug. 20 concert promises to be an exciting and emotional occasion.

Alsop spent two summers as a conducting fellow at the TMC, 1988 and 1989. Her work and her promise seized the imagination of the legendary Leonard Bernstein during his annual return to the TMC to work with the student orchestra and the conducting class, and his mentoring helped launch a career that has taken Alsop to music directorships in Oregon, in Colorado, and, since 2002, at Bournemouth in England. She has guest-conducted many of the major orchestras of England and America, recorded about 30 CDs covering a wide range of adventurous repertoire, and earned such media plums as conducting last season's PBS telecast of Bernstein's ''Candide" from the New York Philharmonic.

As a 12-year-old violinist at the Juilliard School in New York, Alsop expressed an interest in becoming a conductor. One of her teachers frowned and said, ''Girls don't do that." Her father, Lamar Alsop, longtime concertmaster of the New York City Ballet Orchestra, responded in the most appropriate way. He bought her a box of batons.

By the time Alsop arrived at Tanglewood at age 30 -- she's 47 now -- she had spent more than a decade as a freelance violinist in New York, and not just classical gigs. Once she played concertmaster on a Billy Joel album. Collecting her savings, she founded her own ensemble in New York, the Concordia Orchestra. If no one was going to hand her an opportunity to conduct, she would create her own. Concordia, like its founder, specialized in unpredictable programming, with music that ranged from Gershwin to contemporary composer Christopher Rouse and ''Too Hot to Handel," a jazz/gospel version of Handel's ''Messiah."

At Tanglewood, Bernstein coached Alsop on Bartok's ''Miraculous Mandarin," the Third Symphony of Roy Harris, and Hindemith's ''Mathis der Maler" Symphony. She took it all in, but she knew better than to try to imitate Bernstein. Instead she used what he had told her to help shape her own convictions. She won roaring ovations from her onstage colleagues and the public, and she was on her way. In 1990 she became the first woman to conduct the Boston Pops.

Next August she'll become the fourth woman to conduct the BSO. Nadia Boulanger was first, in 1938, and then came Sarah Caldwell in 1977 and Catherine Comet in 1990; of these, only Caldwell preceded Alsop on the BSO podium at Tanglewood.

Alsop has put together a strong program for her Aug. 20 concert, including Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony and a recent American piece, Rouse's ''Rapture." Cellist Yo-Yo Ma will play a classic American work, the Barber Concerto. Six of Alsop's CDs for Naxos survey the orchestral music of Barber, so at Tanglewood she should be, in more than one sense, on home ground.

Tanglewood, Aug. 20. 888-266-1200; www.bso.org.

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