Magazine article The Spectator

The Great Communicator

Magazine article The Spectator

The Great Communicator

Article excerpt

Conducter Marin Alsop talks to Henrietta Bredin about sharing a concert platform with Bernstein

Last September there was a Mass Rally at the Southbank Centre in London. For an entire day the concert halls and foyers overflowed with shoals of people - children lugging instruments, parents rushing after them, singers clutching scores - all gathered to help launch the Bernstein Project, a year-long celebration of the extraordinary genius of Leonard Bernstein.

Beginning with fanfares from Bernstein's Mass, it will culminate in July with a complete performance of that work, involving community choirs, a marching band and a rock group, alongside dancers and professional soloists.

This joyful eruption of an event is the brainchild of the conductor Marin Alsop, who studied with Bernstein and who has found his music and his essential spirit a continuing source of inspiration. The child of New York musicians - mother a cellist, father a violinist - Alsop recalls with great clarity her first experience of Bernstein's communicative flair. 'I was nine years old and my father took me to a concert that he was conducting. Before the music started he turned round and spoke to the audience and I just sat up and thought, "Oh, this is different." There was this crackling energy that came from him, and an unmistakably genuine enthusiasm for what he was doing.

Afterwards I said to my father, "That's what I want to do. I want to be a conductor." What's really interesting, in an odd way, is that I have absolutely no memory of what music was played; it wasn't the most important thing. My reaction was based on emotion and a huge excitement about the sharing of music. I grew up with that and it's stayed with me.'

Although she must have told this story many times, it comes over as fresh and unforced as if she's just remembered it.

There is nothing fake about Marin Alsop and she has a laconically self-puncturing sense of humour that counterbalances even her most weighty pronouncements. Bernstein was an overwhelming presence; his dazzling charisma coupled with a flamboyant yearning for attention. It was fortunate for Alsop that she was in her early thirties and well defined both in character and musical intelligence when she came to work with him as a conducting fellow at the Tanglewood summer school in Massachusetts. 'It was the perfect moment for me, ' she says. 'The conducting world at that time was pretty impenetrable and I really understood that I had this one chance. I worked like crazy, studied round the clock, tried to improve, talked to everyone I could for guidance. I was told that I was going to conduct in a performance, to share a concert with Leonard Bernstein. It was so terrifying, and such an extraordinary thrill. I don't think I've ever been that excited. And I only had three days to learn the music. It was Roy Harris's 3rd Symphony, which I'd never even heard before. But I stayed up several nights, absorbing as much as I possibly could, so that at least I had some sort of personal view of it by the time Bernstein arrived.'

Needless to say, when Bernstein did arrive, it was in grand style, accompanied by a swarm of students, journalists and television cameras. The normally calm room with two pianos and a breathtaking view of the Berkshires was suddenly jammed with people, but 'he looked past them all and said, "Where's Marin? Let's get to work. …

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