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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Economist views Marin Alsop

The Economist, like most English publications, tends to publish its articles anonymously. Smarmy, know-it-all, coolly-edited prose goes a long way towards suggesting factual accuracy, and by the time one of its conjectures is proven wrong, most readers will have already forgotten the erroneous prediction. It deals mainly with economic and political news, but in the back is a section devoted to the arts. There, the anonymous system breaks down, because once opinion enters the equation, credibility goes by the wayside. An example is the page devoted to Marin Alsop in the December 14 issue. Under the heading “can she win the Baltimore Symphony over?” is a mishmash of fact, conjecture and hype. Basic biography (at 9 she wanted a baton, her father still makes her batons for her, orchestras she has conducted and will conduct, etc.) can be taken as accurate. But a statement like “Ms Alsop is a superb communicator and a conductor who appreciates the symphony orchestra as a flexible instrument…” is hardly an unquestionable fact. “Superb communicator” is obviously the writer’s opinion, and her “appreciation of the symphony orchestra as a flexible instrument,” derived from an Alsop quote featured later in the article, has – as will be seen – some embarrassing overtones. “Her artistic vision overshadows …her oft-mentioned gender” is an interesting statement, because it never would have been said of a male conductor, many of whom have stronger artistic visions than Alsop. “A protégée of Leonard Bernstein and a champion of new music, she has been pigeonholed for too long as both” requires additional comment. Alsop herself is responsible for being “pigeonholed;” she plays the “Bernstein” card regularly. As a champion of new music she seems to fancy the trendy composers "in" for the moment. (Her recording of Bartók’s “Miraculous Mandarin” with the Bournemouth is pallid.) She certainly has not yet to proven herself capable of handling a range of repertory classics, so that the remark “the first two CDs in her Brahms symphony cycle, with the London Philharmonic, are polished and invigorating” is not only an opinion, but a minority opinion at that. I was unimpressed with her mannerisms in the Brahms First and singularly unimpressed by her recording of the Second; even more favorable reviewers were cautious about extolling these interpretations. A source in the New York Philharmonic repeated the reaction of the Baltimore players to her handling of the classics; the word the Philharmonic player used to describe her work was “mediocre.” A later paragraph contains some of Alsop’s observations on being a conductor who is a woman. She denies that gender has anything to do with her success, but then points out that aggressive men are regarded differently than aggressive woman, and suggests that upward raising of the palms while conducting is taken as a sign of sensitivity in men but weakness in women. In other words, after denying that feminism has anything to do with her success, she plays the feminist card anyway. Finally, the explanation of the “flexible instrument” mentioned above: “When you think of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the string sound was the same in Mozart and Mahler and I don't strive for that.” Pace the Economist, and the writer who cajoled them into printing a publicity puff as a factual piece,  Alsop has a long way to go before comparing her with Stokowski will have much validity. Although, as the subject of the article, she is also the recipient of the results of my deconstructing it, I should point out that in the dog-eat-dog world of classical music, performance artists need to do just about anything to gain attention and Alsop's playing this or that "card" is perfectly normal. (You simply don't have to fall for it.) This little essay is as much about what lousy journalism the Economist provided here - although its editors would have a fit at the suggestion that they printed a puff piece -  as her professional imperfections.

1:46 pm est

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