sun 26/09/2021

Q&A Special: Conductor Marin Alsop on Leonard Bernstein | reviews, news & interviews

Q&A Special: Conductor Marin Alsop on Leonard Bernstein

Q&A Special: Conductor Marin Alsop on Leonard Bernstein

The Bernstein Project gets under way at the South Bank

Acclaimed American conductor and Bernstein protégée Marin Alsop (b.1956) begins the Bernstein Project tomorrow at the South Bank Centre, a joyous year-long celebration of the legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). She talks here about her formative friendship with the great man, about their swimming days when he was her teacher at Tanglewood, about his rivalry with Karajan and why she thinks his compositions changed the face of American 20th-century music.

IGOR TORONYI-LALIC: Leonard Bernstein doesn't come off well in the three 20th-century musical anthologies I own. Each one takes a snooty dig at him and his music.
MARIN ALSOP: Are they condescending?
Yes. The kindest summation of his compositional craft is this: “He wrote a number of interesting works but only one masterpiece.” How do you counter that opinion?
Poor guy, Jeez! If he had just been a composer I don’t think people would speak this way about him. Though some of the criticism about Samuel Barber is similar, and I find him to be an absolutely phenomenal composer too. There are similarities between them. In that they both refused to give into the critical masses at the time.
Bernstein’s music really grows on you as you get to know it; it is beautifully constructed, and deep. If I had to make a generalisation, people maybe have been unable to separate Bernstein the persona from Bernstein the composer. If you just heard the music without knowing who wrote it, you’d say, “Wow, how fascinating; this melding of styles and the bringing together of so many elements. It’s so skilfully done." His Second Symphony, Age of Anxiety, is brilliant; the way he interprets the epic poem and integrates Plato’s Symposium into the Serenade. It’s a great piece. It is a piece that grows as you investigate it.

What’s a good entry point for those who don’t know any Bernstein?
West Side Story is the perfect entry point, especially for a non-musician. Though, it’s a very complex score. He takes this idea of conflict and bases the whole piece on the tritone, which is the most conflicted interval in music. It’s a sophisticated concept but shrouded… Actually, shrouded is the wrong word because I don’t think it’s at all deceptive. Contained within it is this amazing ability to reach out to the public. In the 1970s, people were so repulsed about being populist. Now it’s not such a crime any more; look at John Adams. However, at the same time, I think he still suffers from that mantle that was put on him.
For classical ears, for those who are only into the modernist school, how do you get into him from that angle? Can you?
Listen to the three meditations from the Mass. I excerpted those when I did a concert with Yo-Yo Ma as we were about to do the Mass in Baltimore and I wanted to preview it. It was a gala audience with people who don’t normally come to concerts. I’d programmed the three meditations and I suddenly thought, “Good God! It’s 12-tone music. Oh these poor people!”
Mass is accused of being his most populist piece but listen to the three medittations and they're quite sophisticated. Also the 12-tone bebop from the Age of Anxiety, I think that’s really a great way in for a serious classical musician.
You have a background in jazz. Do you think you need a jazz hinterland to like and understand Bernstein?
Oh, I don’t know. I wouldn’t really call it jazz. If you don’t like American music you might have trouble, but that's such a broad generalisation.
Bernstein was really one of the first to meld jazz with high art to such a degree, right?
Gershwin really is the one who started it. Though I'd also go back to the music of James P Johnson, an African-American who wrote the Charleston. Johnson wanted to be a classical composer but of course he wasn’t permitted because he was black. He’s a missing link between Scott Joplin and Duke Ellington. Then Gershwin comes. Had Gershwin lived passed 39, he might have written huge tone poems and really changed the course of American music.
Bernstein comes at it from more of a populist viewpoint. Bernstein didn’t hear a symphony until he was 16. Everything was self-taught, making up operas and skits and things. Gershwin was really the first to meld styles. But it is telling that Bernstein's great musical success was in musical theatre. He takes musical theatre to a whole new level. It’s more operatic and challenging than anything that Gershwin did. In terms of the second half of the 20th century, it’s Bernstein who changed the course of American music.
You said earlier that it would be better if we could separate his persona from his music, but wasn't his persona propping up his music?
I think the music stands up. I am a real believer in that. It’s hard for me to have objectivity because I knew him. But my friend John Corigliano always says that nobody can judge your music until you're dead about hundred years. There's something to that. You have to have so much distance. Look at Mahler; he suffered the same fate.
Bernstein isn't programmed that much in Britain these days. If at all, he sneaks into lighter concerts. Is this Bernstein season an attempt to re-establish his reputation here?
I never even thought about that. It's more to do with that fact that he was such a multi-dimensional artist. He always said that Mahler was a prophet of the 20th century; that Mahler was foretelling the challenges and conflicts that the 20th century would face. While the word "prophet" may have too many religious overtones, Bernstein was a philosopher for the 21st century. He was the guy who was able to think, talk and share music with any spectra of people from the most sophisticated composer to a guy who had never heard anything. This isn't comfortable for people; people aren't meant to be able to do this. So they would look at the lower end of his output and say that this is too "lowest common denominator". But when you hear those Norton Lectures there's some unbelievably virtuosic thinking going on.
I've never seen his Norton Lectures.
I had to review them – this is how old I am – when they first came out on VHS for National Public Radio. I thought it would take me just a few hours. I sat down and thought, "What are they saying?" Hearing him speak about this idea about the parallels of linguistics and music - which was the whole concept - was so complex.
His idea was that music is more fundamental because, unlike language, we have the harmonic series that is part of the music of the earth, so we have a basic language that we share. He then goes on to analyse music in terms of phonology, syntax and semantics, the three areas of linguistics. This is some pretty fantastic thinking. Then he gives examples. He talks about Mozart's 40th Symphony, which is what we're doing with the OAE. I’m going to in my own way try to recreate or summarise these talks on December 5. He takes the music apart and shows you what would have happened if Mozart had made it symmetrical. He asks what beauty is. Is it to do with symmetry, asymmetry or surprise? It’s beyond belief. Even when you look at the Young People's Concerts, they’re sophisticated concepts that he's getting across.
What we are trying to achieve in this Bernstein Project this year is an exploration and extension of his philosophy. How do we carry that on into the 21st century, this inclusivity and eclecticism?

This coming Sunday you're performing a rather curious arrangement of Beethoven's Ode to Joy. Tell us more.
It's so sacrilegious and over the top. It’s been arranged by a friend of mine. The idea is that this was Bernstein's piece; he played it when the Berlin wall came down. And he was very Beethovenian in his ideas. So we are taking the Ode to Joy and we’re making it all-inclusive. We’ve got the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. We’ve got Bellowhead playing variations.
Who’s Bellowhead?
Yeah, I don’t know. I said, "Who do you have?" And they dragged in all these groups. There are two bagpipers on a variation, kids singing a gospel variations and then of course the real ending. It’s completely sacrilegious but so fun.
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain gave a touching performance of the Ode during the Proms.
Oh, why didn't we get them! We should have got them.
You are disciple of Bernstein in more ways than one. You studied with him, but you're also following in his footsteps in your educational commitments.
Yes, I really believe in that. I was with him in Sapporo, Japan, when he announced that he would stop conducting. It was shocking. I would say, "How are you?" And he’d always say, "I’m dying." This was his thing. "Oh, I’m dying." He kept saying it and I thought, well, he's fine. But he really was dying. 
What did he say in Sapporo?
It was the opening of the Pacific Music Festival. He stood up and said, "I’ve decided to spend the remaining time I have devoted to education." Ultimately that’s what he really believed in: giving back. I don't know if it was just with young people but he was so wonderful with young orchestras and at Tanglewood where I met him, where they were glued to him. I think because he was inherently a child. He lacked the personal space that we all have as adults. He had a rudimentary sense of humour, very basic, very base. He was like a 12-year-old. Or a 10-year-old some days. And the positive things went along with that such as his curiosity. He had an immense curiosity about everything. "Oh, I love that bracelet," he'd say, and I'd give it to him. I was always giving him all my stuff. Junky things. He was this kind of person. He was so much fun to be around. He'd suddenly say, "Let's go swimming. There's a river here so let's just go." And you'd just go. It was different kind of existence. Young people always said, "This is so great. That’s how we feel; that’s what we want to do." That was one of the last things he felt passionate about: education.
Yet, despite this childishness, he mixed with the great and the good? Presumably, then, he could be very sophisticated too?
Yes and no. He could carry a conversation with anyone. He was passionate about politics. This is another thing I admired about him. He always stood up for what he believed in. He wasn’t going to be among the sheep. He could certainly hold his own. He was authentic; it wasn't as if he put this part on. One never knew what was about to happen. That was part of the nightmare and excitement of it. He could say things that were really inappropriate with people that he shouldn't. It was all unfiltered. 

Do you think he was instrumental to your career?
Yes and no. He was still from an old school, where women as conductors were still confusing to him. I was conducting once and he was sitting in the audience and he seemed lost in thought. I asked if everything was ok and he said, "Well, I've been sitting here and when I close my ears I can't tell if you’re a woman." And I said, "Well, why don't you just keep your eyes closed then if you're more comfortable."  I didn't know what to say. He was clearly trying to get his arms around the subject. It was a little odd, you know, because he had all these disciples who were all kind of nice-looking young guys and then there was me. What was I doing here. But he loved me and believed in me etc.
He would never go and say to the New York Phil that they had to hire his student. I came from nowhere at Tanglewood. Every time there was a camera, he’d always grab me. So my head was within every picture. So I think somebody finally said, "Who the hell is that?" I think just being there and being featured and him focusing on me was a great career boost. But it’s interesting. How many of his students made it? There were hundreds who studied with him. He was never about career. He was always about the music. That’s what he taught me: careers come and go and the music is always sacrosanct, always convey the composers. People thought that he was investing and ingesting himself too much. It was completely authentic and sincere. When he conducting Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony he really was Tchaikovsky. He was devastated at the end and he would move himself; it was not a put-on. And maybe that was more important than career?

Some people see his resignation from the New York Phil in 1969 as a fatal mistake?
Fatal mistake? He seemed to do pretty well. His career didn’t follow any normal path. It was very atypical. I remember reading in The Times years ago, where they were listing the 10 best orchestras of all time. Number one was, "Any orchestra that Leonard Bernstein was conducting at any time." What greater compliment could you get than that?
I never found him regretful or resentful. I never heard him say, "If only." Not once. I don’t think he tracked his career at all. The only thing he once said - I don’t know if I should say this… He was driving in a car - it was maybe 1989. The car had a big cell phone. I said, "Wow, I guess you know you’ve arrived when you’ve got a phone in your car." "No," he said, "actually, it’s when you have your own aeroplane." And that was because of Karajan's jet.

As a woman, I'd like to get your take on Bernstein's relationship with his wife, Felicia. Many believe that he treated her very badly by pretending to be straight while engaging in homosexual liaisons on the side?
I didn’t know her. I didn’t see them interact. I think he adored her. That’s my impression. When you read Humphrey Burton's biography, you can see that he had real and very deep relationships and friendships with women. I don’t know. When we think about it today, to get involved with someone, get married to them and build a family with them, when you have doubts about your sexuality, that could be considerered treating someone badly. Then again I think he was completely devoted to her. When she died it was devastating and it took him years to recover. I think it was a very complex family unit. The kids are fascinating, so brilliant and eclectic. But they’re complicated; they're not straightforward in upbringing.
And they seem to revere him.
They do but they also laugh about him. They used to make brutal fun of him when he went on and on, as you can do with your parents.

Tell me about your career in Britain. When did it start?
I started working in Scotland in 1996 with the Royal National Scottish Orchestra. My manager said, "Don't have high expectations." I don’t have expectations; I just go and see what happens. But there was a real connection. And when I started conducting the LSO and LPO, I felt a real synergy within these British orchestras. Maybe it is just the result of a shared sense of humour. The work ethic is what really appeals to me. The musicians here are so committed to what they’re doing, so engaged and involved. A lot of the time we are required to do things quickly and you have to keep a sense of humour and passion about it. That chemistry always felt right. My stint at the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra was a nice run fro me, except for the drive down there.
Do you think about the milestones that you have achieved as a female conductor?
I don't until people ask. You just feel like yourself and do what you do. I think it’s unfortunate that there can still be firsts for women in this day and age. But since there are first, those come with a certain responsibility to try to make the path a little easier for the next generation of women. One of my favourite authors is Anne Quinlan. She was writing about how many women constitutes "enough women". Is it only enough when there are 50 per cent women? Interesting idea. Sometime I worry that now that there is a woman leading a major American orchestra, everybody's off the hook.  So I thought, how can I be helpful to the future generations? And in 2002 I started a fellowship for talented young women. It’s expanded now to a two-year award. A panel picks one woman. I bring her along to various orchestras with me. Orchestra get to see her. It's a matter of comfort level and exposure for people. Maybe I'm naïve but I don't think it's prejudice. I’m trying to create opportunities for women to get in there and just be seen. And then whatever happens happens, but at least I feel i have done something to try to help.
Bernstein's Mass. Listening to it the other day I could hear his genius but I could also understand some of the criticism. Do you see how something like the "Simple Song" is ripe for attack?
Do you mean because it's so trendy and simple?
You have to keep it in context in Mass. Mass is about conflict. The fact that it opens with this quadraphonically recorded, polytonal choirs, coming from different parts of the hall, a very disorienting, very dissonant opening. And the fact that from there it goes to the simplicity of the "Simple Song" and the guitar and this 1960s simple approach. I’m still touched when the drums come in. I can see how if you just listened to this song you could think it a little tacky. But because it comes from this atonal opening, I don’t find it terribly cheesy. 
It just reminded me of trendy church music.
Oh but you have to remember that that was the music of the time. I couldn’t stand going in those things. But people still have those things, especially in America.
On the other hand, Pax [which will be performed tomorrow], which bookends the work is quite obviously a work of mastery.
And yet this simple round that it starts with is tough. It starts in seven eight, then five eight. And if you teach it to choirs and singers they constantly getting lost. I can see why, it’s never simple. Its complex. Maybe it’s the whole concept of the piece. Even "Simple Song" isn't simple. There's an undertow of complexity, and that's what I find brilliant about it.

Some people say an aura of disappointment set in after the hostile critical reaction to the Mass. Was that true?
That’s an interesting question. I think it’s so difficult when the initial criticism is so vitriolic. I would try to talk about it and the people around it would make faces. I felt like I was bringing up a long lost child who had been incarcerated; I knew it was there but I really didn't want to talk about it. It was the favourite child that he’d lost and couldn’t talk about anymore... The one time I did start to broach the subject everybody in the room was, like, "Don’t!"
And once you did broach the subject...?
No, I never did. I was getting the evil eye from everybody. 
Are there any works that you will be performing for the first time over the course of the season?
A couple of fanfares haven’t been published. The result of a really serendipitous moment. I was in lounge in Baltimore about to come to London. Some fella British guy came up to me and said, "I heard your concert and I'm doing a book on West Side Story." "Oh really," I said, "well, I'm doing this project." "Well, I've just been to the Smithsonian and I’ve found all these pieces..." He brought all of these unpublished worked to me. There are many songs that had been cut from West Side Story that we’ll be doing for the first time.
I wanted to do a concert of unknown works but the estate is a little challenging to deal with - Boosey and Hawkes. But maybe next time. In 10 years.
And finally, which works are you most looking forward to conducting?
I love them all.
The Bernstein Project launches tomorrow at the South Bank Centre, continuing throughout the season. Information here

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