Paying It Forward
- Marin Alsop is one of the world’s foremost conductors. She got there by helping change the classical world.
- For decades, Ian Bostridge has been enraptured by Franz Schubert’s Winterreise. The British tenor has found the song cycle to be as effervescent and relevant now as it was when it was first composed two centuries ago.
Ian Bostridge is an internationally renowned tenor. He has performed at the Salzburg, Edinburgh, Munich, Vienna, St Petersburg, Aldeburgh and Schwarzenberg Schubertiade Festivals; worked with orchestras in Berlin, London, Vienna, Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere; and performed at such premiere venues as Carnegie Hall, Westminster Abbey, and Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. His recordings have been nominated for 15 Grammy Awards and won numerous international prizes.
Bostridge received a prestigious Queen’s Scholarship at Westminster School before completing degrees at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. He began singing professionally while completing his Ph.D. thesis on 17th and 18th century witchcraft at Oxford, later published as a monograph. He is best known for his performances of Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, subject of a 1997 film and his book Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, which won the Duff Cooper Prize in 2015. He was awarded a CBE in 2004.
A trailblazing conductor, Marin Alsop made history in 2007 when she became the first woman appointed as music director of a major American orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony, a position she held for 14 years. While there, she created bold initiatives to provide innovative programming, reach new audiences, and expand music education and access to traditionally underserved communities.
Alsop was educated at Yale and Juilliard and played violin with the New York Philharmonic and New York City Ballet. She has served as music director for Colorado Symphony, Eugene Symphony, the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, and the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music; conducted such major international orchestras as the London Philharmonic and London Symphony, the Cleveland and Philadelphia orchestras, and the Orchestre de Paris; and was the first female conductor of the Last Night of the Proms. In 2002, she founded the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship to foster other talented women in her field. Among her many awards, she is the first and only conductor to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that brings you insights into the human condition from some fine creative thinkers.
I’m Jim Cotter and on this episode, ”Paying it Forward.”
Marin Alsop is one of the foremost conductors in the world. She got there by helping change the classical music world.
Marin Alsop: We have to acknowledge that women were really, almost kept out of this profession.
Ian Bostridge has, like many, been enraptured with Franz Schubert’s, Winterreise, for decades. The British tenor has found that the centuries-old song cycle is just as effervescent and relevant as it was when it was first composed.
Ian Bostridge: It’s a criticism of consumerist society, the desire to possess stuff.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
When in 2005, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced that Marin Alsop would take over as music director, she faced immediate resistance. But it didn’t come from outside the orchestra, it came from the musicians, who felt that they hadn’t had enough say in the process of her selection.
Marin Alsop: You know what should have been and was at least momentarily, one of the happiest days of my life, you know, when the chair of the board at that time, called and said, ”Would you consider taking on the music director position?” I think that turned into probably the worst nightmare of my entire life.
Back then, Alsop was that rarest of rare birds, a top level female conductor. Knowing the objections of the musicians she would have to lead, close colleagues urged her not to take the job. Instead, she asked for 10 minutes alone with the orchestra.
Alsop: So I walked out, they were quite surprised to see me, I think, but it was a private conversation. I asked the management and Board not to be there. I outlined the areas that I thought I could be helpful in to them, you know, not the least of which was conducting. And I said, “But I’m—I won’t sign this contract unless I have your support.” And so I started to walk off and the chair of the committee said, ”You have our support.” And, you know, whether it was genuine or not in that moment, is hard to know, but I needed to have that in order to begin.
Now nearing the end of her tenure as music director in Baltimore, Alsop has accomplished much in the concert hall and recording studio and beyond. Under her leadership, the orchestra released their first recordings in years and garnered a Grammy nomination for “Best Classical Album in 2010”, for recording of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.”
She also conducted the BSO, on its first international tour in over a decade. In addition, she founded ORCHkids, a year round, during and after school music program, designed to foster social change. Marin Alsop’s journey into music began at a young age, and she’s never really known anything but a life rich in music. Born in New York City in the 1950s, both her parents were professional musicians, playing with the New York City Ballet. She knew she wanted to be a conductor from the age of nine and was the rare child who had a mini-orchestra at her disposal. Her parents would invite their friends and colleagues over to play, so that their precocious daughter would have someone to conduct. All of this music so early in her life, she says, was key in helping to form her character.
Alsop: I believe wholeheartedly in the musician, as a kind of prototype for the human being, because all of the skills you need, are transferable to everything else. So, for my parents, it was all about, you know, ”First of all, the show must go on, no matter what, we don’t miss a concert.” And we had some funny things, you know, whether we had to abandon cars and run and, and of course, as a kid, I was dragged along to everything. So, I saw them, and you go on stage and nothing, you pretend nothing happened, you know, it’s a whole, it’s all about this, preserving the integrity of the music at all costs.
Alsop: I also watched them say, ”Well, you know, we really should have a concert hall on our house and let’s build it.” So then the three of us are trying to build this, huge, enormous living room, which eventually we did.
Marin Alsop found an early cheerleader in one of the 20th Centuries’ most towering musical figures, Leonard Bernstein. She’s one of the last conductors to learn firsthand from the legendary composer, conductor and pianist, who was a lifelong advocate for the transformative power of music, despite his rather traditional perspectives on who should be on the stage and who should remain in the audience.
Alsop: From the minute I saw him conduct and he turned around and spoke to the audience, I felt engaged and gripped and that he was speaking right to me and I think he had that capacity, also, even though there were thousands of people around him and cameras and everything, you know, if he was focused on you, he was focused on you and everything else fell away. When he would teach me, give me a lesson, even in public, I didn’t even notice anybody else was there.
Alsop: There was a funny moment where, usually, when I finished conducting, he would jump all over me and jump on the podium and go crazy and I finished and where is he? And he was out sitting out in the audience with his head down and I thought, “Oh gosh, what happened?” And so I went out and I said, “Maestro, what’s, is something wrong?” He said, ”I can’t figure it out. When I sit here and close my eyes, I can’t tell you’re a woman.” And I said, “Well, look, if you want to close your eyes through my concerts, I don’t mind.” I mean, we had a good laugh about it, but he told me that he was trying to figure it out. He was trying to work out for himself, why gender should be an inhibiting factor or a determining factor and he couldn’t find any reason. So, I think for me, it was actually extremely validating because he was willing to think in a broader way, you know, “Why aren’t women accepted, because I can’t hear any difference?”
By the time she took the reins in Baltimore, Alsop was well qualified for the job, having already held leadership roles in orchestras in Colorado, Richmond, Virginia, Eugene, Oregon, and St. Louis. She had also guest conducted major orchestras across the U.S and in Europe and Asia, and in 2005, she became the first conductor to receive a so-called, ”MacArthur Genius Award.” For Marin Alsop, music isn’t something for a select few to be appreciated from afar, it’s something to share and she’s made that sharing a cool part of her work in Baltimore.
Alsop: I was pretty shocked at the fact that the city is 80% African-American, 70-80% African-American and we had one African-American musician in the orchestra. And when you look across the orchestras of the United States, the world, actually, there are very few people of color in these orchestras and why is that? I mean, it’s a fundamental reason because kids don’t have access to these instruments and training when they’re little, you know, and you have to train from when you’re very little, it’s like the Olympics, in order to achieve that level of acumen. So, I set out to try to change that for the future, I never anticipated I would change it for my tenure, but for the future of this city. And we started a program with 30 first graders, in West Baltimore and now we have 2000 kids playing musical instruments, but the most amazing part is that the first graduates, they’re now graduating in high school, and they’re going to music schools, they’re being accepted. I never dreamt that the first generation of this program, would, some of them would turn into professional musicians, they want to go into music, into education, into music management and they’re hugely successful. The orchestra has gained a reputation in the community for caring and feeling somewhat relevant to the community it inhabits. And I think as we move forward, especially post COVID, these qualities in arts institutions, are going to be critical. We have to be responsible to the communities we live in and we have to represent them and we have to figure out ways to open the doors wide and share with everyone. And I feel that at least I could make a start.
The other major gap in the orchestral world was, for a long time, the gender divide. Alsop has said that she thinks the title of ”First Woman of Conducting,” is a quote, “really silly epithet,” yet it’s not without merit. In addition to being the first female music director of a major American orchestra, she was also the first woman to conduct The Last Night of The Proms and, in 2019, the first female chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. And though she modestly rejects the title of ”Trailblazer,” today, there are at least a dozen young women following in her wake. And she wasn’t just a role model, almost 20 years ago, she started the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, to train promising female conductors.
Alsop: We have to acknowledge that women were really, almost kept out of this profession. I mean, not just conducting in that leadership role, I mean, as leaders, women have been really kept at the fringes and only one or two let through now and then. But that can’t be because there were no talented women, as we see, there were talented women that weren’t acknowledged, and there are dozens and probably hundreds of women who missed that window of opportunity, you know, I just want to say it out loud because I feel for them and, you know, I’m happy that young women are now getting opportunities because well, it should have happened all along the way. So, I don’t think it’s that suddenly, all these talented women popped out of the earth, I think they’ve been there all the time, but suddenly, they were able to get a foot in the door, and maybe even now the door is open for them. I was busy for 30 years saying, “Where are, why aren’t there more women? What can I do?” And it’s a matter of creating opportunities but suddenly, every orchestra wants a woman on the podium because it’s part of what they ”have to do,” and I’m thrilled because it is an opportunity now. I just want to ensure that it’s not just a trend and they’re not just doing it because they have to do it, but because it’s genuine and sustainable.
This will be Marin Alsop’s last season at the helm in Baltimore. She’ll continue to occasionally conduct concerts, as music director laureate, but she’ll be spending a lot more time in Europe. Still, she says that she and her partner, horn player Kristin Jurkscheit, will stay connected to Baltimore.
Alsop: I think the timing is perfect to leave. I believe that I’ll be tied for the longest tenure as music director of the Baltimore Symphony. I think we’re going to try to stay connected to the city and to the community in ways that can be helpful and supportive. I’m devoted to the ORCHkids Program, you know, that’s really, I want to see it succeed and reach more and more kids. So, while we may relocate, I think we’ll continue to keep our roots here in Baltimore. This kind of life, where you keep having to build relationships and then give them up as you move on, I think at a certain point in life, it doesn’t feel quite worth it, especially when you feel so connected to a place and I really love this city.
But at the start of her final season with the Baltimore Symphony, the global pandemic effectively shut down any chance of her being on stage with her musicians one last time.
Alsop: I think it’s a little bit ironic and bittersweet that my last season probably won’t exist. You know, maybe I’m having a nice, relaxing moment, but it’s definitely not a diminuendo, it’s definitely taking my time to ramp up to the new crescendo. I think that music can connect people where words can often antagonize them. So, I look at it more as a vehicle rather than an end goal. Music is a great comfort, it brings joy, it brings memories, it brings sadness, you know, when words escape us, music can often be the consoler. So, I feel privileged to live a life with music as my vehicle.
Alsop’s new home away from home is Vienna, a famously musically misogynistic city. Its symphony orchestra, The Vienna Philharmonic, refused to hire female musicians for the first 155 years of its existence and only acquiesced to international pressure in 1997. It wasn’t conducted by a woman until almost a decade later when Simone Young took the podium at the Musikverein. But Marin Alsop isn’t much concerned with past omissions in the Austrian capital, she’s here to do what she’s always done, change lives through music by speaking quietly and carrying a small stick.
(Excerpt from Franz Schubert’s My Dream manuscript):
With a heart filled with endless love for those who scorned me, I … wandered far away. For many and many a year I sang songs. Whenever I tried to sing of love, it turned to pain. And again, when I tried to sing of pain, it turned to love.
Today, 193 years after it was composed, Franz Schubert’s, Winterreise or ”Winter Journey,” remains one of the most performed song cycles. This collection of poems set to music unfolds in 24 parts and tells the story of a mysterious man wandering through the woods, mourning his lost love, searching for connection, enlightenment and healing. And though the 75-minute piece is known for being melancholy, the wanderer does not only wallow, he also has a sense of humor.
Ian Bostridge: And he is never really gloomy because the scene as the voice in the poems becomes aware that he’s being gloomy, he starts to…
AJC: Shake out of it.
Bostridge: Shake out of it, and well, starts to question himself and starts to think, well, “Why am I being like this?” He is examining himself and there’s something incredibly modern about it in that way, it’s a mixture of the sort of gallows humor and quirkiness and sort of deep existential anxiety.
The celebrated British tenor and scholar, Ian Bostridge, has been singing and contemplating Winterreise since he was 20 years old. In 1994, when he was 30, he starred in a film version of it. 26 years later, the piece remains as captivating and as mysterious to him as ever.
Bostridge: And they are only possibilities because it is such an open-ended work, which is one of its powers and one of its strengths but I think it’s also a work in which you can hang all sorts of possibilities.
Bostridge documents his lifelong fascination with Winterreise in his 2014 book, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy Of An obsession. In it, the tenor draws parallels between the modern world and Schubert’s experiences in the 1800s. Then as now, greed and materialism was rank, a fact Schubert’s wanderer laments while making his way through a quiet town, full of ordinary selfish people.
Bostridge: “Im Dorfe,” which is the 17th song, which is about, it starts with a sort of rumbling noise and the piano, and he’s approaching a village and he can hear the chains rattling, the dogs barking and then he imagines, I suppose, that the people in their beds are snoring and the piano is imitating all these noises by this sort of rumbling that it’s doing. And then he talks about all the dreams that they’ve had while they’re asleep and how, when they wake up, they hope to find all these dreams, on the things that they’ve had in these dreams on their pillows and it’s a sort of, somebody outside this existence is imagining these people dreaming about having stuff. And I suppose it’s a criticism of consumerist society, the desire to possess stuff. And that for me, connects to how we are now and how we just want, you know, the economy is geared around the desire to have stuff, and we have to want to have stuff and get more stuff because otherwise everything seizes up and it’s all a bit of a dream.
Among the activities of Schubert and his cohort of rebellious artist friends, they shared music at Schubertiads, intimate concerts hosted in the private homes of Schubert’s friends and peers. One of them being Ignaz Von Sonnleithner, the founder of the Society of Music Friends of the Austrian Imperial State. But in 1820, the Austrian government caught wind of their revolutionary activities and arrested Schubert and four of his friends. One of them, the poet, Johann Senn, was jailed, then exiled from Vienna. The others, including Schubert were simply reprimanded for using hostile language against officials. But this didn’t cow Franz Schubert. For the rest of his life, which would last a mere eight years, the composer used his art to express his yearning for freedom, from the oppression of a conservative status quo. But Schubert was also a flawed man. During the summer of 1818, he worked as a music tutor for the teenaged daughter of the Hungarian Count, Johann Karl Esterházy, and developed a strong unrequited affection for the youngest Countess, Caroline, eight years his junior. Legend has it that Schubert wrote many a complicated piano duet, just so his hands could intertwine with hers. After she rejected him, he quit the job. In Anatomy of an Obsession, Bostridge cites this infatuation as a deeply felt connection between Schubert and his wanderer. They were both men in exile, nursing broken hearts.
Bostridge: So for example, in the first song, it did occasionally worry me to think about, “Why is this young man leaving the house late at night in the 1820s?” It seems a bit odd that this guy is in this house and that he’s fallen in love with a girl and, “Who is he?” And I, it became clear to me researching it and thinking about it, that he’s one of the great experiences of sort of, young, well-educated men in that period, was working as a house tutor and all the great philosophers and poets of the period, they all worked as private house tutors in families and quite often it got a bit messy.
Schubert died age 31 in 1828, only a year after Winterreise was published. Nearly 200 years on, the work continues to resonate, thanks to the universally human story it tells and to those like Ian Bostridge, who continue to squeeze new meaning from it with each fresh listening, each new performance.
Bostridge: And I suppose, when I’m doing something like Winterreise, what I’d say is that it’s a collision between the work, me and the audience and it’s like, it sort of feels like sleepwalking, really, you start the piece and you go into it, you don’t quite know where you’re going to end up because, in the course of singing the piece, all sorts of things may you come across, new ideas, new light that’s cast on the personality of the wanderer in the cycle and your own personality and it’s different every time. There’s a song called “Das Wirtshaus” which really means ”The Pub”, towards the end of the cycle, which is where the wanderer reaches the graveyard and he thinks that it is a pub and he wants to lie down and go to sleep, not get up again but he sort of pretends there’s an innkeeper there and the innkeeper won’t let him get in and he goes off. And there was just one particular occasion when I suddenly thought that— and it was a very macabre thought—but I thought of all the members of the audience being like gravestones in a graveyard, so, and that carried a particular sort of threat and was an interesting way of looking at it.
Franz Schubert’s Winterreise begins with an ending. The first song in the cycle is a farewell that forces him to greet the unknown, to find out what’s next.
Bostridge: “Gute Nacht.” Good night is very often the end of the tale, isn’t it? It’s what we say to children when the bedtime story is finished, it has something gentle about it and this is a gentle song, a song, which in rehearsal or in performance, I always experience as both an ending to something, and also a prelude to the cycle proper. Marked down in dynamic and hushed pretty much throughout, as the wanderer creeps away from the household in which he has loved and somehow lost.