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Approaching a critical 'Mass'

August 15, 2004|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

St. Louis — "What you see is what you get."

Marin Alsop says this often about herself in interviews with the press that are posted on her website. She might have said it once more over coffee at her hotel the morning after conducting a performance of John Adams' "Nixon in China" for Opera Theatre of St. Louis. But she didn't need to. It's obvious.

Maybe even a little too obvious.

What you see is a very good conductor who communicates easily with musicians and has an enthusiastic, forthright, punchy style that usually goes over well with audiences. There isn't a lot of fuss about her work on the podium. There isn't a lot of fuss about her persona off the podium. She's dressed in jeans and T-shirt for a warm, humid Midwest summer day, and she's unusually upbeat for a conductor who was still beating upbeats at 11 the night before. She's a morning person and has been awake for hours.

What you see is a conductor who has worked her way through the ranks in time-honored fashion; who heads the Bournemouth Symphony, Britain's oldest orchestra; and who regularly guests with the major American orchestras. She has been coming to the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1991.

She's so won the orchestra's confidence that she was asked to lead Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" at the Hollywood Bowl this Thursday night. The riotous and still controversial countercultural theatrical version of the Roman Catholic liturgy was written for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 1971 and involves nearly 300 performers, including dancers, actors, a marching band and assorted hippie hangers-on. It is the most ambitious project the Philharmonic has ever attempted at the Bowl.

Indeed, Alsop has reached the point where it wouldn't be surprising if she was tapped to be the next music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (which may have an opening in 2006, depending on whether Esa-Pekka Salonen renews his contract), the Chicago Symphony (which does have an opening in 2006) or her hometown band, the New York Philharmonic (which is already thinking about who will succeed Lorin Maazel when he steps down in 2009).

But what you see and what you get is also a woman conductor. Alsop has made it -- but that is to say that she has made it further than any other woman conductor. That is to say that, at 47, she gets to conduct standard repertory even though she is still referred to often, and perhaps condescendingly, as a Leonard Bernstein protegee.

Little sexism exists anymore among symphony orchestra managements (Los Angeles and Chicago, two of America's most important orchestras, are run by women). Orchestra players rarely have a problem with musicians of the opposite sex (the rosters of American orchestras are becoming equally divided between men and women). Some sexism may subsist among orchestra board members, but they can't expect to get away with it much longer. Yet the glass ceiling remains.

"I don't think it is a curiosity anymore," Alsop says of the gender question. "I was over it after the first interview 20 years ago. When we look at it, I would say, 'Oh, sure, it's pretty much a nonissue now.' But if we are realistic and we look at the business, it clearly is an issue, because there are no women leading major orchestras."

She doesn't elaborate, but what is left unsaid is that the four other front-ranking American conductors of her generation all have recent North American appointments: Robert Spano in Atlanta, James Conlon at Ravinia, David Robertson in St. Louis and Kent Nagano in Montreal.

Still, as her developing relationship with the Philharmonic indicates, Alsop could ultimately trump them all. She was the only guest conductor this season booked to appear at both Disney Hall and the Bowl (where she will also conduct Brahms and Shostakovich on Tuesday night), and she cannot avoid drawing attention with "Mass." That's not only because this theater piece is rarely done -- its scale is daunting, and for a long time it was widely misunderstood -- but also because of what it represents for Alsop on several levels.

"Mass" is the most over-the-top work by a composer for whom the top was outrageously high. Bernstein wrote it at the request of the widowed Mrs. John F. Kennedy. Described as "A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers," it is not only a setting of the Catholic Mass with additional snappy, sappy texts by Broadway songwriter Stephen Schwartz ("Godspell," "Wicked") that question the notion of faith in the time of war. It's also a musical panoply, stylistically covering everything from rock to serialism. At its premiere, it managed to offend just about everyone.

President Nixon stayed home. J. Edgar Hoover compiled a fat file on the perpetrators. The musical establishment groaned with embarrassment, as did genuine hippies who felt co-opted by the establishment. For the rest of his life, "Mass" proved a sore point for Bernstein.

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