DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Picture it. A TV commercial. Voice-over: "Congratulations Marin Alsop! Now that you've just been named new music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, what do you do next?"
Alsop grins broadly and declares: "I'm going to Daytona Beach!"
Not a very likely advertisement, perhaps, but the scenario isn't at all far-fetched.
A day after signing a contract with the BSO to take charge of the podium in 2007, and with the music world still buzzing about a startling request from the orchestra's musicians to continue searching for a music director, Alsop hit the beach. But not for vacation.
Her long-planned trip to Daytona was for the London Symphony Orchestra's opening concerts in the 2005 Florida International Festival. While NASCAR racing, hordes of carousing spring-breakers, and roaring Harley-Davidsons (and coleslaw wrestling by scantily clad women) during Biker Week may have entered the public consciousness a bit more firmly, this two-week summer festival says a lot about Daytona, too.
In 1966, local newspaper publisher Tippen Davidson led an effort to boost the town's cultural life by starting a festival. He sent invitations to 100 big-league organizations, seeking a partner. The London Symphony was the only taker.
The orchestra paid annual visits through the rest of the '60s. After a hiatus when funding was scarce, it returned in the 1980s and now keeps the tradition going biennially.
Musicians, family and friends are greeted warmly by the community. One little example: Volunteers keep a backstage break room heavily stocked with finger sandwiches, sweets and pots of tea for the British guests.
Although getting in some noonday sun and enjoying Florida attractions are on the agenda, orchestra members work hard here, offering chamber music and educational concerts in addition to full orchestra concerts.
Alsop's schedule wasn't exactly a breeze, either. She led two action-filled programs, did a pre-concert chat Friday night, attended the obligatory receptions and granted more press interviews. The latter invariably meant dealing again with the historic ramifications - first woman music director of a major U.S. orchestra - and controversy of last week's BSO news.
"I need time to get some distance from this and really think about everything that happened," Alsop said over a decaf latte after a rehearsal.
Although she contemplated withdrawing her name when the BSO players' frustration with the search process boiled over, Alsop sounds determined to learn more about their concerns with management. "I want to see what I can do to help them," she said.
As for the London musicians who filled the stage of the Peabody Auditorium in Daytona Beach, they couldn't have looked happier with Alsop.
At the end of Saturday's rehearsal for a Bernstein on Broadway program, violinist Lennox Mackenzie stood up to thank her on behalf of the orchestra, prompting hearty applause from his colleagues.
"We love her, and we want to keep seeing her," Mackenzie said later backstage. "You can always rely on her when she conducts. You can't get lost with her. And she turns up with a sense of humor. She gets into the banter with us [at rehearsal]. Some musicians may look on her as being flippant, but she's not."
Mackenzie, the LSO's "sub-leader" (like an associate concertmaster in an American ensemble), said he was "surprised and disappointed" to hear about apparent dissatisfaction among BSO players. "I hope things develop well for her there," he said.
Her LSO concerts gave Alsop an opportunity to reaffirm the scope of her repertoire and her audience rapport.
On Friday evening, about the same time TV viewers were learning that she was named ABC World News Tonight's "Person of the Week," Alsop fielded thoughtful questions from a large pre-concert audience. She deftly discussed such things as extra-musical meanings in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, female composers and "the Leonard Bernstein obsession I had as a kid."
That obsession did not necessarily result in emulation. Her interpretation of Beethoven's Fifth had little of the gravity and inner drama that Bernstein brought to the score but made effective points primarily through rhythmic thrust. Alsop drew a mostly spot-on performance from the LSO, which easily retains its ranking among the world's finest (and certainly among the liveliest).
A theme of battling against fate unified the program, which started with a bracing sweep through Verdi's La Forza del Destino Overture.
An otherwise vivid account of Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 (with bold soloist Sara Chang) lacked the extra, soulful dimension and sense of deep personal struggle that current BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov can uncover in this score.
After a fairly rough rehearsal for Saturday's salute to Bernstein's show music (the festival programs get only one run-through), Alsop and the LSO had a great night.
The Symphonic Dances from West Side Story rocked. The Londoners played them with a decidedly American accent, but couldn't resist a little devilish Brit wit; both at rehearsal and in the concert, when required to shout "Mambo!" most of the players substituted a mild, not easily detected obscenity.
Alsop took Bernstein's Candide Overture at a surprisingly undercharged pace but had dance episodes from On the Town and the overture to Wonderful Town cooking with gas. There was abundant style from conductor and orchestra the whole evening, along with a good deal of charm from Laura Benanti and other vocalists.
Both nights gave ample evidence of what can happen when Alsop and a top orchestra are in sync. It will be interesting to see and hear what develops in Baltimore.
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