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She could restore lost luster

Alsop is a fine musician and the Baltimore Symphony is in poor financial shape. But she needs cooperation from the players to succeed.

July 20, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Did it really have to be such a mess?

From afar, the appointment of Marin Alsop as the next music director of the Baltimore Symphony certainly sounds like something to celebrate. As one of the top dozen or so orchestras in America, it is the most important ensemble yet to appoint a woman as music director. The Baltimore Symphony has, moreover, selected an American conductor who made a name for herself by championing American music.

Alsop is a fine musician. Audiences tend to like her. Last season she was so enthusiastically received when she conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and at the Hollywood Bowl that she would have surely been a candidate to succeed Esa-Pekka Salonen had he chosen not to renew his contract.

Her reputation is also enhanced by her successes with the orchestras she has led. They loved her in Denver when she was music director of the symphony there for 12 years. They love her in Bournemouth, England, where she currently works. Through a series of recordings, she's even given Bournemouth an international prominence it hasn't previously enjoyed.

But the players in Baltimore are balking. Last week a players' committee began publicly complaining that they were not being listened to when the news of the forthcoming appointment was leaked to the Baltimore Sun. The search to replace the Russian conductor, Yuri Temirkanov, who will leave after next season, had been going on only since the beginning of the year, and the players' committee wanted a longer search. But the orchestra's management and its board, while respectful of the players, had its own agenda, and Alsop has been appointed over any objections.

Exactly what those objections are or why Baltimore's management was willing to hurt relations with the players to rush this appointment through are unclear. Is it, for the players, personal? Do they dislike her as a conductor? Are they unhappy with her predilection for American music? Have they taken a look at Alsop's programming at the Cabrillo Festival, where this year she will be conducting a recent piano concerto by Philip Glass and thought this will not fly in a conservative city?

And what about management? Is it interested in Alsop's vision? Or is it out for the publicity of hiring a woman?

The Baltimore Symphony is not in particularly good shape these days. It's deficit has been variously reported as $10 million and $12 million. And the orchestra has hardly demonstrated strong artistic vision of late.

Under David Zinman, who led the Baltimore Symphony from 1985 to 1998, it had great prominence through its exciting programming, which focused on American and new music. The appointment of Temirkanov, though, was a move backward. A famous Russian, Temirkanov can be a riveting presence on the podium, but his connection with America is minimal.

Zinman responded angrily to what appeared the undoing of his hard work to build a new repertory and make the orchestra relevant by resigning his position as conductor emeritus. And it should surprise no one that the symphony, although it has probably given Baltimore some very good Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, lost its luster under Temirkanov.

Alsop could be just the person to restore that luster. But it doesn't bode well that the majority of the players don't appear to like her. Talent, technique and vision matter a lot in the success of a music director. But so does chemistry. If the chemistry between Alsop and the orchestra just isn't there, she may be the wrong choice. Orchestras sometimes sour on conductors they first adore or grow to admire conductors they didn't first like. So who knows what will happen?

In the end, I wonder just how much this sorry hiring saga ultimately has to do with Alsop. It smacks, instead, of a power play between the players and management. It is disheartening that the management didn't make a greater effort to respond to the players, perhaps take more time to make the appointment in a way that would better please the orchestra. It is disappointing that the players, who have reportedly given many successful concerts under Alsop, suddenly turned pig-headed.

It should be about the music. The fact is Baltimore needs Alsop more than she needs it.

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