The Great Communicator

Conductor Marin Alsop talks to Henrietta Bredin about sharing a concert platform with Leonard Bernstein

The Spectator, 1 May 2010

Last September there was a Mass Rally at the Southbank Centre in London. For an entire day the concert halls and foyers overflowed with shoals of people - children lugging instruments, parents rushing after them, singers clutching scores - all gathered to help launch the Bernstein Project, a year-long celebration of the extraordinary genius of Leonard Bernstein. Beginning with fanfares from Bernstein's Mass, it will culminate in July with a complete performance of that work, involving community choirs, a marching band and a rock group, alongside dancers and professional soloists.

This joyful eruption of an event is the brainchild of conductor Marin Alsop, who studied with Bernstein and who has found his music and his essential spirit a continuing source of inspiration. The child of New York musicians - mother a cellist, father a violinist - Alsop recalls with great clarity her first experience of Bernstein's communicative flair. 'I was 9 years old and my father took me to a concert that he was conducting. Before the music started he turned round and spoke to the audience and I just sat up and thought oh, this is different. There was this crackling energy that came from him, and an unmistakably genuine enthusiasm for what he was doing. Afterwards I said to my father 'That's what I want to do. I want to be a conductor.' What's really interesting, in an odd way, is that I have absolutely no memory of what music was played; it wasn't the most important thing. My reaction was based on emotion and a huge excitement about the sharing of music. I grew up with that and it's stayed with me.'

Although she must have told this story many times, it comes over as fresh and unforced as if she's just remembered it. There is nothing fake about Marin Alsop and she has a laconically self-puncturing sense of humour that counter-balances even her most weighty pronouncements. Bernstein was an overwhelming presence; his dazzling charisma coupled with a flamboyant yearning for attention. It was fortunate for Alsop that she was in her early thirties and well-defined both in character and musical intelligence when she came to work with him as a conducting fellow at the Tanglewood summer school in Massachusetts. 'It was the perfect moment for me,' she says. 'The conducting world at that time was pretty impenetrable and I really understood that I had this one chance. I worked like crazy, studied round the clock, tried to improve, talked to everyone I could for guidance. I was told that I was going to conduct in a performance, to share a concert with Leonard Bernstein. It was so terrifying, and such an extraordinary thrill. I don't think I've ever been that excited. And I only had three days to learn the music. It was Roy Harris's 3rd Symphony, which I'd never even heard before. But I stayed up several nights, absorbing as much as I possibly could, so that at least I had some sort of personal view of it by the time Bernstein arrived.'

Needless to say, when Bernstein did arrive, it was in grand style, accompanied by a swarm of students, journalists and television cameras. The normally calm room with two pianos and a breathtaking view of the Berkshires was suddenly jammed with people but, 'He looked past them all and said 'Where's Marin? Let's get to work.' It was as if the clouds parted and God spoke. I thought, if I don't have a heart attack this is going to be great. He worked with me for about an hour and a half, which felt like 5 minutes, and that entire crowd of people went out of focus. I just forgot they were there.'

Bernstein ended up giving Alsop his own score of the Harris symphony to take home with her that night (thereby ensuring more sleeplessness on her part) and their relationship strengthened and grew. 'I had the sense to know when to be quiet and when to talk back to him. And he liked it, he liked who I was.' He rocked her confidence by praising her technical mastery of the music but admitting that it didn't move him. She went into a spiral of panic, not knowing what to do, how to respond. But she survived. 'I was desperate; I couldn't figure it out but all I could do was try to connect with the music and how I felt about it. I went back, stood on the podium, looked at the score and suddenly, it was as if I'd had a full body massage; all the tension dropped away, I took a couple of deep breaths and started conducting. About two minutes into the piece, Lenny snuck up and whispered into my ear, 'Now that's good.' It was a major turning point for me. Of course it's very important to know technically what you're doing, how to express yourself, but if it's the technique that's driving you, there's really no point. It remains confined to the score.'

This desire to communicate through music, to share it as widely as possible, underpins everything that Alsop does. She wanted to bring Bernstein's work to the Southbank, not just the music he composed but the music he conducted and cared deeply about, Mahler in particular. And at every step she has sought to open up the music-making process. Films are being screened; talks and discussions have been scheduled with poets, scientists and mathematicians; when she conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Mahler's Resurrection Symphony on 9 May, the players will be shadowed by young instrumentalists from the Southbank Sinfonia.

And of course the biggest, most inclusive, all-embracing, Bernsteinian performance of all will be Mass. Composed by a Jewish man, using a Christian framework, defying religion while encompassing all religions, employing musical styles of every description, it is the ultimate in eclecticism.

Slammed by critics for being too populist, trying too hard to be hip, Bernstein loved using popular idioms in his music, in the same way that Mahler brought Klezmer, Ländler rhythms and the sound of Almglocken into his.

The Southbank's Jude Kelly is directing the performance and Alsop finds her a responsive and stimulating creative partner. 'She sees it as quintessentially American and also universal, about idealism, human rights and aspirations. Bernstein was all about getting people involved and Mass becomes a journey for the participants as much as the audience. It's a hugely cathartic, potentially life-changing experience. You can make it as embracing or as elite as you want and this, with at least double the number of people I've ever had to deal with, is the most embracing Mass you could ever imagine.'