Marin Alsop: The Mind Behind 'Too Hot to Handel'

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By Moses McGavin

This season, the Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra, the Fort Washington Community Choir, and a slew of guest vocalists will be performing Too Hot to Handel: The Gospel Messiah, a Latin and jazz-infused adaption of Handel’s Messiah at the United Palace of Cultural Arts. Perhaps the only thing more exciting than this venture for the Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra is the performance of a piece originally conceived by Marin Alsop, the current music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and an icon in the classical music world. In order to understand this conductor better, the WCHO takes a deeper look inside Alsop’s accomplishments, goals, and awards throughout the years.

 A teenage Marin Alsop playing violin.

A teenage Marin Alsop playing violin.

Early Career

Marin Alsop was born October 16th, 1956 to two professional musicians. She began studying piano by the age of two, and began studying violin at the age of 5. After beginning high school at the age of 12, Alsop entered Yale University at the age of 16. She would later transfer to Julliard and graduate with a Bachelor of Music Degree in 1977 and her Master’s Degree in 1978, which were both in violin performance. 

After graduating, Alsop began freelancing in New York City, playing everything from the New York Philharmonic to Sweeney Todd. Shortly thereafter, Alsop began conducting studies with Carl Bamberger, and by 1981 was leading String Fever, a 10-piece string swing band (Swing Fever is still active today—you can listen to them here!) She would go on to find the Concordia Orchestra, a 50-piece Orchestra that mostly explores 20th century works. It was here that Concordia Orchestra conceived the idea for Too Hot to Handel. (And the Concordia Orchestra still performs as well! You can find them here.)

In 1989 Alsop received her major breaks in the classical music world. Alsop received the Koussevitsky Conducting Prize by Tanglewood for best student conductor. She would go on to become the Music Director of the Eugene Symphony Orchestra (a position she held until 1996), and Associate Conductor of the Richmond Symphony in Richmond Virginia. She then went on to win the Leonard Bernstein Conducting Fellowship to the Tanglewood Music Center where she became a student of Gustav Meier, Seiji Ozawa, and Leonard Bernstein.

 Marin Alsop and Gustav Meier. Alsop would succeed her mentor, Gustav Meier as the Director of Graduate Conducting at the Peabody Institute of the John Hopkins University in 2015.

Marin Alsop and Gustav Meier. Alsop would succeed her mentor, Gustav Meier as the Director of Graduate Conducting at the Peabody Institute of the John Hopkins University in 2015.

 In 1990, Alsop would make her debut at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. She would also accompany Bernstein to the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, where she would conduct Beethoven’s 2nd. You can see her performance here. In 1992, Alsop was appointed the Music Director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, California, a position she would hold for 25 years.

In 1993, Alsop was appointed the Music Director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO). Over the next 10 years, Alsop would accept prestigious positions such Creative Conductor Chair of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (1994), an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Gonzaga University (1995), the Conductor Laureate of the Eugene Symphony (1996), Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (1999), and Principal Conductor of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (2001), and recording a Brahms cycle with the London Philharmonic (2004). Throughout this decade, Alsop recorded the complete works of Samuel Barber with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, won two awards from the ASCAP for her programming with the Colorado Symphony, and was awarded the Gramophone Magazine’s Artist of the Year and the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Conductor Award, making her the first artist to ever win both of these major awards in one year.

Alsop was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship Prize or “Genius Grant” in 2005 for “…her skill in making the unusual understandable, and her championing of contemporary music.” The MacArthur foundation continued that Alsop “defie[d] stereotypes and offer[ed] a new model of leadership for orchestras in the U.S. and abroad.”

She was awarded the Classical BRIT Female Artist of the Year Award and was nominated for a Grammy for her recording of Daghterty’s UFO with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. In 2005, Alsop was appointed Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra effective 2007, making her the first woman to lead a major orchestra at the age of 50.

 

At the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

 Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.  Alsop Reheasrsing Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” for    #BernsteinAt100

Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Alsop Reheasrsing Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” for #BernsteinAt100

During her tenure at Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Alsop released one Baltimore Symphony’s first commercial recording since 1999 (2006), made her Carnegie Hall debut (2008), launched the educational program OrchKids, and extended her tenure at BSO until 2021.

For years, Alsop has honored her mentor Leonard Bernstein through a series of works such as recording Bernstein’s Mass in a critically acclaimed and Grammy nominated album, and curating a 9-month long Bernstein Project at the Southbank Centre (which she would later become the Artist in Residence for).

For years, Alsop has honored her mentor Leonard Bernstein through a series of works such as recording Bernstein’s Mass in a critically acclaimed and Grammy nominated album, and curating a 9-month long Bernstein Project at the Southbank Centre (which she would later become the Artist in Residence for).

In 2012, Alsop became the first female conductor to conduct the Last Night of BBC Proms. Since then, Alsop has returned to the Proms twice, being awarded Honorary Membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2014. Effective 1 September 2019, Alsop will be the first female conductor be be the chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Alsop continues to be a renowned figure throughout the classical music world, as she has broken boundaries with her skill, innovation, and vision. To hear one of Alsop’s great works come to life, get your tickets to Too Hot to Handel: The Gospel Messiah today!

Tickets: https://www.unitedpalace.org/product/too-hot-to-handel-gospel-messiah/