Marin Alsop considers herself lucky. Though the pandemic dried up work for many artists, the internationally renowned conductor was able to continue with some podium assignments, such as recording engagements in Vienna.
What did get wiped away, though, was her debut as Ravinia’s chief conductor and curator — the first such position in the festival’s history. The two-year appointment was announced in February 2020, along with an outline of Chicago Symphony Orchestra programs she would oversee that summer. Just a month later, however, everything was canceled, and the festival — the CSO's summer home — went dark for a season.
Since then, COVID-19 protocols have significantly loosened across Illinois, and that means Alsop will begin her new post this year as the festival reopens with a slightly abridged season. The CSO's annual residency starts July 9, with Alsop leading a program of Joan Tower's Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, No. 1; Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 (with Jorge Federico Osorio), and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. WFMT-FM (98.7) will broadcast the concert live, beginning at 7:45 p.m.
After a one-year layoff, Alsop is raring to raise her baton on the CSO’s opening night. “It’s going to be so wonderful to be live again,” she said, “and sharing music outdoors.”
Jeffrey Haydon, who took over in September as Ravinia’s president and chief executive officer, confirmed that rather than Alsop losing a year, the clock on her two-year tenure will start this season instead of last, as originally envisioned.
However, Alsop couldn't just reprise the programs she had ready for last year. The orchestra's size onstage had to be reduced because of necessary distancing precautions, and there were challenges with securing visas for many artists based outside the United States. So Alsop had to set aside much of what had been previously planned.
Known for her artistic flexibility, Alsop simply shrugged off the challenges and called them an “acceptance process.” “You hang on to those pieces that you are dying to do with the Chicago Symphony, and then you realize, OK, this is not happening," she said. "How can I — [using] the famous COVID word — pivot? How can we save a great season and do something exciting?”
In reshuffling the programs, Alsop worked closely with Haydon and two other members of Ravinia’s staff, senior artistic producer Erik Soderstrom and associate producer Hinano Ishii. Haydon and Alsop had not met previously, but he has long followed her career and is a big fan. Haydon said the two worked well together, communicating via phone, Zoom and email. “She’s a very collaborative, creative partner,” he said. “She has a lot of great ideas, and she is also a great listener.”
Partly in response to last summer’s protests over the death of George Floyd and heightened awareness of gender and racial inequities, Alsop also put a greater emphasis on diversity in the composers and artists she chose for 2021. “We went back and really tried to remodel the programs in a way that would bring classical favorites to people but also address the interest suddenly — finally, I should say — in hearing a diverse range of works.”
A movement toward increased inclusion had begun under the festival’s former leader, Welz Kauffman, especially in the areas of jazz and pop music, Haydon said, and it was a matter of balancing those efforts in the classical realm. As a member of an under-represented group herself, Alsop was already known for her non-traditional programming, so she was excited about the shift toward greater diversity. “It’s not really a stretch for me at all,” she said. “It’s a joy. I’m so glad that our world has been forced to open up.”
One program that reflects this new emphasis is the July 10 lineup titled "Celebrating Hidden American Triumphs." Audiences might understandably expect what Alsop called the “usual suspects” by the likes of Aaron Copland or John Philip Sousa. But she went in a very different direction, focusing on works by composers of color and women. The centerpiece is The Battle for the Ballot (2020), written by Chicago composer Stacy Garrop to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which affirmed women’s voting rights. With the current discussions around the issue of political access, Alsop said, the composition could hardly be more timely.
She built out the program from there with All American, another work about the suffragist movement by Laura Karpman, best known as a movie and television composer, and Carlos Simon’s Fate Now Conquers. The latter piece will be led by Jonathan Rush, an African-American conductor whom Alsop has championed. (Rush will be mentoring a new generation himself as he leads a workshop for Sistema Ravinia, the festival’s El Sistema-inspired social development and orchestra program, which reaches 300 students across 14 schools in Chicago and near Waukegan.)
Rounding out the lineup are two works, Victory Stride and Harlem Symphony, by James P. Johnson (1894–1955), a well-known stride pianist and composer. Though both had premiered at Carnegie Hall in the 1940s, they were subsequently lost until the 1990s when Alsop unearthed them after years of research. “Everything is very accessible, very listenable,” she said of the July 10 program. “The Johnson is really like the missing link between [Scott] Joplin and [Duke] Ellington, so it’s got that jazz flavor to it. And the new works are all fantastic.”
At Alsop’s behest, Garrop and Karpman created reduced arrangements of their works to accommodate smaller-sized forces mandated by coronavirus protocols. Even though those limits have been largely lifted, Alsop plans to perform the smaller versions to honor the work the composers put into them.
Alsop’s Ravinia post is not her only new title. Over the last few years, she has undergone several transitions. She took over as chief conductor of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2019, and was recently named music director of National Orchestral Institute at the University of Maryland, a summer program for elite young musicians with concerts at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Va.
Her 14-year music directorship with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the longest and arguably the most visible position of her career so far, ended after the 2020-21 season. She is now music director laureate, leading three sets of concerts each year. “I’ve gotten a lot accomplished that I hoped to do,” she said. “I think the orchestra — well, before COVID — was sounding fantastic. I’m happy to be leaving the orchestra in a very good place.” In addition, she stepped down as music director of the São Paulo State Symphony in Brazil in 2019, overlapping her Vienna post by several months. “So for one minute, I was doing three orchestras, which is insane,” she said.
While Alsop has always made a point of spending quality time in each conducting post she has held, she also has been conscious of not wanting to stay too long. “Change is both exciting and challenging — always,” she said. “For me, connecting so deeply to a community, connecting so deeply to an orchestra, it just doesn’t go away overnight. I can’t let go of those relationships right away.” To help ease the transition, she often has taken a title like “laureate conductor” and returned regularly for the first few years.
As for starting a new job, she deals with each situation differently. Adding a challenge in Vienna, for example, has been the language. She begins each rehearsal in German but inevitably ends up in English. “That’s how it goes,” she said with a chuckle. Some of the musicians do not speak English, so makes a point of speaking to them in German, a language she studied in her 30s while music director of the Colorado Symphony. “I’ve been working on my German, and it has been coming back," she said. "I absolutely love learning languages. I’m hopeful in a year or two, I’ll be pretty fluent.”
The transition at Ravinia has been much easier, because she already has a considerable history at the festival. After her first appearances in 2002 to 2005, she returned in 2018 and 2019 to serve as curator of Ravinia's extended celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s centennial. “I know the orchestra well, and I have so much admiration and respect for them," she said. "I know the venue. I love the setting. It’s so idyllic. So I have that advantage already going into it.”
Reprinted with permission from Ravinia magazine