Meet Marin Alsop

When did you first know you wanted to be a conductor?

Well, unlike most people, I didn’t have much choice about going into music because my parents were both musicians. I think they really wanted a pianist, not a child! And I hated the piano. When I was about six, they tricked me into playing the violin. And I loved the violin because you get to play in the orchestra.

I started getting into trouble – they said I was trying to lead the orchestra from the back, when I was about eight years old. And then, luckily, my dad took me to a concert. I saw the conductor come out and he was jumping around and he was so enthusiastic that I said, “Oh, that’s what I can do and not get in trouble.” That conductor I saw was Leonard Bernstein, and eventually I became his student, which was really magical.

What story does this concert tell about American music?

I think that all the composers on this programme represent an American idealism that is about optimism, and the possibility that you can determine your own destiny. I hope people say, Oh, yeah, you know, I feel empowered by listening to this music.

Run us through the programme…

I’m starting with a piece by a Black American composer named James P Johnson. You’ve probably never heard of him, but he wrote the Charleston. He’s kind of the missing link between Scott Joplin and Duke Ellington. I had a swing band for 20 years, so I love this whole period in American music.

Then there’s a symphony by Samuel Barber, that clearly comes from the European tradition, but it has an American sound, a bit of an edge to it. It’s very accessible. It’s really about the romanticism of America – big ideas and big melodies.

I’m opening the second half with Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, which everybody knows. And then there’s a fanfare by Joan Tower called Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman. And I’m very humbled to say that it’s dedicated to me. It has the same instrumentation as the Copland, but it’s a very different. Lots more moving lines and more complex, as you would imagine!

And then, of course, I wanted to do something by my teacher, Leonard Bernstein. Three “Dance Episodes” from On the Town – these are just really, really fun – but also very challenging for the orchestra.

We’re closing with the quintessential American piece, Rhapsody in Blue. But I didn’t want to just play that piece again, I wanted the audience to hear it in a different way. So, I invited Marcus Roberts and his Trio to play. Some of it’s improvised. But what’s interesting is that when Gershwin premiered this piece, he didn’t write out any of the piano cadenzas at all. He just wrote in the score “Watch George”.

Tell us more about working with Marcus Roberts and the Trio

It’s really inspiring. And of course, it has its challenges for me as a conductor, because he’s blind so he can’t see me. So it’s all about breathing, and me understanding his body language and his musical intention.

The first time he ever played with orchestra, in 1992 I think, it was with me. And he was really freaked out because he had learned the piece from a cassette tape, which was a half-step off pitch. So he had to adjust everything he had learned by a half step, which he did immediately. He’s an incredible musician, and since then we’ve collaborated on a lot of projects. I love working with him in this context because he also has incredible drummer and bass player with him, and they work together all the time. So it’s not just Marcus, it’s Marcus and the support system as well.

How would you describe American music in three words?

American music is fun. It’s danceable, and it’s always optimistic.

Watch the full Q&A on the Philharmonia YouTube channel here.

Marin Alsop features in our concert on Thursday 19 October, tickets from £10.

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