Always a top advocate, Marin Alsop promotes the cause of American music

Internationally acclaimed American conductor Marin Alsop has made a point of championing the familiar and not-so-familiar music of her homeland on her concert programs and many recordings.

Her Naxos catalog, for example, includes the complete orchestral music by Samuel Barber, much of Leonard Bernstein’s output, as well as four symphonies by Roy Harris, a 20th-century composer who has been unfairly forgotten in recent decades.

Alsop will continue her ongoing advocacy for American composers Feb. 10 and 12 when she leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Barber’s rarely heard Symphony No. 1, a work the CSO last performed in 1997.

“I wanted to bring something that people haven’t heard and the musicians haven’t had to play day in, day out, and I really do think it’s a masterpiece,” said Alsop, whose current posts include music director laureate of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and chief conductor and curator of the Ravinia Festival. “That’s the only way I can describe it. It really plays to the orchestra’s strengths in terms of lushness, color and dynamic range. I really wanted to start with something that piques everyone’s interest.”

Also featured on the program will be Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with Czech pianist Lukáš Vondráček, who is recording all of the composer’s keyboard concertos with the Prague Symphony Orchestra, and Edward Elgar’s perennially popular Enigma Variations. Alsop first collaborated with Vondráček, now 35, when he was 19. “I just thought, ‘Oh, who is this incredible poet of a pianist?” she said.

The conductor brought him to various orchestras she is associated with, and she recommended that he enter the 2016 piano edition of the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, for which she was conducting the finals. He took first prize, and his budding international career has flourished since. Vondráček made his debut with the CSO last summer at Ravinia with Alsop on the podium.

“I hope it is a menu that will appeal to everyone’s tastes,” Alsop said of the program. “I particularly like ending with the Enigma Variations, because Elgar wrote the piece for his friends. It’s a piece about connection and knowing each other, and I think coming out of COVID, this is something that we’ve missed so much, this idea of connecting and gathering.”

Barber (1910-1981) is most recognized for his beloved Adagio for Strings, (1936), Violin Concerto (1939) and Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947) for voice and orchestra. Some of his other pieces have been more frequently performed in recent years, such as his opera Vanessa (1958) and his Cello Concerto (1945).

But the composer’s Symphony No. 1, also known as the Symphony in One Movement, remains stubbornly little heard, and Alsop believes that is a shame. She discovered the 1936 work when she recorded all of his orchestral music in the 1990s with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra — her first major recording project with Naxos. “I was amazed,” she said. “I was blown away by the variety, by the stylistic differences among his pieces.”

But she believes the Symphony No. 1 really stands out, because it showcases Barber’s gift for melody, his interest in the Romantic tradition in an American context and explores what a symphony in the 20th century can mean. “It’s a great, great piece, and it’s really still very rarely performed,” she said. 

Barber composed his Symphony No. 2 in 1944 and published it in 1950 after many revisions. It was commissioned by the United States Air Force, and in preparation, Barber participated in flight training and battle simulations. “I think it’s fantastic,” Alsop said. “It’s all about flying and the experience of being in the air.”

But in 1964, Barber had his publisher, G. Schirmer, destroy the original manuscript and all the scores in its library because his feelings about it changed, and he began to see it as a work of war propaganda. In 1984, a set of orchestral parts was found in a G. Schirmer warehouse in England, and they were used soon thereafter for a recording by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with conductor Andrew Schenck. Alsop also included the work among her recordings of the Barber orchestral repertoire but it remains almost unknown.

“The First Symphony is rarely performed,” she said, “but the Second Symphony is never performed.”

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