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MUSIC REVIEW : Marin Alsop Breaks Gender Barrier at the Music Center

November 16, 1991|MARTIN BERNEHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

It took a ridiculously, preposterously, painfully long time for a woman to reach the podium of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for a regular concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But the momentous event finally occurred on Thursday, when Marin Alsop--35-year-old music director of the Eugene Symphony and Long Island Philharmonic--made her much heralded debut.

Perhaps the debut was too much heralded. It would be difficult even for a miraculous fusion of Arturo Toscanini, Madame Curie, Mother Teresa, Nadia Boulanger and Eleanor Roosevelt to live up to the media hype that preceded Alsop's engagement here. And, as the Fates would have it, Alsop seems to be a conductor more noted for enlightened competence than for overwhelming brilliance.

She chose a complex program that asked much of her baton technique, not so much of her interpretive powers. She conducted it with efficient diligence. Ultimately, she commanded respect but exerted little inspiration. Contrary to hopes and expectations, no star was born.

Interestingly, a large number of empty seats at the Pavilion suggested that much of the hype had been in vain. Accustomed to seeing JoAnn Falletta in Long Beach, Iona Brown with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and Susan Davenny Wyner with the Philharmonic Institute, local audiences may not have found the milestone particularly startling. Perhaps the public was further confused by memories of other \o7 maestras\f7 who have already wielded the Philharmonic baton under special circumstances.

Alsop is, to be sure, the first to grace the regular \o7 winter\f7 -season agenda. But her road was reasonably well paved.

Ethel Leginska conducted at Hollywood Bowl as early as 1925. Antonia Brico followed in 1930 and, in the wake of a popular documentary film, ventured a rather disastrous return in 1975. Margaret Harris presided over a picnic concert in 1972, and Judith Somogy conducted subscription programs at the Bowl with distinction in 1975, 1976 and 1977.

More recently, Rachel Worby has led the Philharmonic in numerous youth concerts at the Music Center, as well as a Cinco de Mayo celebration. Not incidentally, the young British conductor Sian Edwards is scheduled to make her debut here at the end of the month.

The Philharmonic door has long been ajar, and now apparently is open. This raises an obvious question: Why have so few women passed through it?

The answer is elusive, and it involves further questions. Have only a few women aspired to a major conducting career because the jobs were too scarce? Or have women failed to triumph over archaic prejudice because the talent pool has remained so small?

A single female, it long was thought, cannot hope to dominate a hundred egocentric males. If nothing else, Alsop put the appropriate label on that hokum.

She exuded authority as she made her brisk entrance, clad in what the sartorial expert to my right described as a black crepe pantsuit. She wasted no time getting down to business.

In Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet," which opened the program, she took nothing for granted--dotting every musical \o7 i\f7 and crossing every \o7 t\f7 , telegraphing every cue and dutifully sculpting every phrase in the air. Such fussy leadership tactics may be necessary in Eugene, but they suggest overconducting in the orchestral big leagues. Still, the performance had sweep and grace in its undoubted favor.

In Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, which closed the program, she relaxed somewhat. Although she favored dangerously fast tempos, even in passages that accommodate jauntiness better than speed, she demonstrated the courage of her urgent convictions. She also exulted in mighty splashes of color, in rhythmic propulsion and sheer dynamic force. The ever-cooperative Philharmonic responded to her urgings with virtuosic flair.

For the centerpiece, Alsop turned to the Serenade after Plato's "Symposium," a seldom-performed essay for violin and orchestra written by Leonard Bernstein in 1954. A student of Bernstein's in Tanglewood during the late 1980s, Alsop brings obvious sympathy to this rather pretentious challenge, and she provided the soloist, Dmitri Sitkovetsky, with sensitive orchestral accompaniment.

She could do little, alas, to disguise the vapidity of music that veers glibly from classical purity to romantic mush to jazzy funk.

Sitkovetsky, 37-year-old son of the pianist Bella Davidovich, mastered the expressive cliches and intricate bravura flights with elegant point. Nevertheless, he had to work very hard to achieve very little.

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