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“Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” ranted professor Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady.” Saturated with self-importance, he was quite serious, even though lyricist Alan Jay Lerner had his own tongue firmly in cheek. In classical music, gender issues are hardly a laughing matter. After all, it was less than a decade ago that the Vienna Philharmonic, arguably the world’s most venerated orchestra, admitted its first woman (predictably a harpist, a stereotypically female role), and then only upon threat of losing its government subsidy. This summer, our own Baltimore Symphony Orchestra set off an international shock wave when it shattered one of the most resilient of all glass ceilings by appointing Marin Alsop as its music director. As incredible as it may seem in our day and age, she thus becomes the very first woman to head a major orchestra. Since the age of the castrati waned more than two centuries ago, women have held the stage as opera stars. Female instrumental soloists emerged throughout the 1900s. Yet the world of the baton still remains a male bastion. Of the few pioneers, esteemed conductors Sarah Caldwell and Eve Queler attracted considerable attention several decades ago, but had to found their own opera companies in Boston and New York when established podiums eluded them. (Alsop appeared destined for a similar fate, forming the chamber group Concordia in 1984.) As with most births, Baltimore’s was fraught with pain. Although Alsop’s appointment was strongly promoted by the orchestra’s board, nearly all the musicians reportedly opposed it. While all parties quickly made peace to present a united front, and attributed the prior protest to a procedural snub of not having been adequately consulted, that’s not what they had said to the press at the time. It appears that gender issues played at worst only a minor role in the anti-Alsop reaction. Rather, the musicians, as well as some critics, expressed concern over poor rehearsal technique, shallow interpretation, lack of nuance, and uninspired artistry. Alsop’s credentials surely appear strong — educated at Yale and Juilliard; one of Leonard Bernstein’s last pupils; Gramophone‘s Artist of the Year in 2003; the first conductor to be named a MacArthur Fellow; regular appearances with the world’s great orchestras in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and throughout Europe; music director of the Colorado Symphony since 1993 and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra since 2002. So what can we expect in Baltimore once Alsop takes over for the 2007-08 season? Perhaps the best evidence lies in her catalog of recordings, which reflect not only uncommon taste but an astutely planned career path. EASY ON THE EARS Perhaps to surmount the special challenges in competing with the vast tide of other conductors of her generation, Alsop has positioned herself as a specialist in modern American music, a focus reflected in the vast majority of her extant CDs. Alsop has the good fortune to record for Naxos, which not only is budget-priced and widely distributed but tends to market its vast catalog of offbeat repertoire for sustained periods — an unfortunate rarity nowadays, when CDs tend to have an alarmingly short window of availability. There’s a common pattern to her recordings: Despite having been written as recently as 2002, nearly all the works are easy on the ears. Paramount among these are superlative multivolume surveys with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra of the orchestral music of American romantics Samuel Barber and Joseph Collins, played with just the right blend of lyricism and brashness. Percussion concertos by Michael Torke and Michael Dougherty are predictably vapid but superficial fun, bound to impress with their vital pop-infused noise. Both discs are filled out with pleasant but trivial mood pieces that go in one ear and out the other, momentary diversions that lack even a pretense of depth, somewhat akin to those moronic WGMS radio promos suggesting that the highest achievement of art is to put you to sleep. The most musically intriguing among Alsop’s CDs presents Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 of Philip Glass, who speaks with a distinctive voice and enriches his minimalist roots with uplifting progressions and lush, evolving sonorities. Even the most modern-sounding, Béla Bartók’s “Miraculous Mandarin” ballet, is given a reading that smooths its rough edges into a far more mellow conception than the barbaric tale warrants. At the risk of invoking the very gender stereotypes that Alsop’s career seeks to defeat, it is reputed that women executives (real ones, not “Apprentice”-type caricatures) are good organizers, patient, warm, and insightful — qualities all amply evident in Alsop’s recordings. LEADING THE WARHORSES While modern music has served Alsop well in establishing a niche on record shelves and garnering invitations as a guest conductor, the demands of her new position as music director of a major orchestra are far different. As The New York Times noted, Alsop’s reputation as an audience builder seems an especially propitious fit for Baltimore, where often nearly half the seats are vacant. Yet charm only goes so far. While they occasionally tolerate small doses of offbeat repertoire, the season subscribers, patrons, and donors upon whom the Baltimore Symphony depends for its survival are largely a conservative lot who view the concert hall as a museum and demand a constant diet of warhorses written at least 100 years ago, within the era that lasted from Haydn and Mozart in the late 18th century to Wagner and Debussy at the dawn of the 20th. Alsop appears to recognize this, as her programs are a judicious mix of old and new — her first concert in Baltimore this season (on Jan. 12) will present a Mozart piano concerto, a Dvorak symphony, and contemporary American composer Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 1. Of her CDs so far, only three suggest Alsop’s level of mastery of the standard repertoire. Two Johannes Brahms CDs are largely discouraging. While his Symphony No. 1 begins and ends with thundering timpani, the rest reflects Alsop’s stated focus on “balance and proportion” — superficially idiomatic but without any special distinction. The ecstatic reviews quoted on her tightly controlled Web site (which rather risibly warns against altering her official biography without permission) are hard to accept — they speak of spontaneity, impetuosity, drama, gutsy playing, taut energy, and a thrilling ride. (Could some of this stem from the extrinsic appeal of her gender achievement rather than intrinsic merit?) Indeed, there is another side. While The Boston Globe praised her Tanglewood debut this summer as “honest, heartfelt and exciting,” The Berkshire Eagle found it “ineffectually led and marked by inconsistent playing.” The Baltimore Sun critic is no fan, and others have cited shallowness, deeming her more a skilled technician than an inspiring leader. Any first symphony is a major undertaking, and after laboring over his for 14 years, Brahms surely had something significant to say, yet Alsop seems content to reside in confidence and comfort, devoid of tension or personality. Such an approach works, and lapses in inspiration are readily disguised, in unfamiliar modern music that needs a traffic cop rather than an interpreter, but not here. The lapses are less evident in the gentle Brahms Symphony No. 2, but exasperating in his “Tragic Overture,” where the essential drama and gravity is stifled by warmth and caution. WHY GO OUT? Her Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky disc, though, hints that Alsop may have more to offer and Baltimore more to anticipate. A studio-recorded “Romeo and Juliet Overture” is woefully undernourished, its climaxes plodding and fatigued. But the Fourth Symphony is altogether something else, with inspired solo turns, meltingly lovely instrumental interplay, and a scorching finale of thrilling precision, sharp accents, and a tangible enthusiasm in which the players keep urging the tempo forward by anticipating their entrances. Why the difference? First, this is Alsop’s only concert recording, which suggests that her live performances may trump her studio product. Second, while the London Philharmonic is so familiar with Brahms as to sleepwalk through his work (and sounds like it did with Alsop), here we have the Colorado Symphony pushing itself to play like a top-rank ensemble. It’s the same thrilling edge as when a high school athlete, novice poet, or violin prodigy strives to excel beyond perceived capacity and limitations. Yoel Levi transformed the Atlanta Symphony into a world-class orchestra in the ’90s. Hopefully, Alsop will work similar magic as she leads Baltimore into the major leagues. The difference is crucial — it’s one thing to tempt CD buyers to risk eight bucks on a new Alsop release, but a far steeper challenge to pry a time-pressed professional couple out of their living room to splurge $200 on a concert, especially if they’re apt to hear a less interesting performance of a standard work than dozens already available. In prior times, the only way to savor the glories and subtleties of music was to attend a concert, but that’s no longer true — indeed, the home often provides a superior occasion for concentrated listening and reflection. Concerts remain justified when they project the distinctive and spontaneous personalities of performers with something unique to say, but not when they offer mere routine run-throughs of well-worn scores. Hopefully, Marin Alsop will rise to that challenge in Baltimore.
Peter Gutmann is a partner at the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. Music articles by the author are posted online at www.classicalnotes.net.

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