BSO music director Marin Alsop to step down in 2021

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Marin Alsop conducts a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra rehearsal. Photo via the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Facebook page.

After 14 years leading the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop is stepping down at the end of her current contract, which expires Aug. 31, 2021, the BSO announced today.

Alsop, the first woman to lead a major orchestra in the U.S., will maintain the roles of Music Director Laureate and OrchKids Founder.

In the former role, Alsop will continue to oversee three concert weeks over the next five seasons, until 2025-2026. And in the latter role, she will continue to oversee the after-school program she founded to teach local children how to play classical music.

In a statement, Alsop said: “The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is one of the world’s
great orchestras and I have been proud to have served as its artistic leader for the past 14
years. I am looking forward to leading these outstanding musicians as Music Director in the
upcoming season and continuing our involvement in my new position as Music Director
Laureate.”

BSO president and CEO Peter Kjome told Baltimore Fishbowl in an interview that, given how far out the organization has to plan its seasons, he and Alsop have had private conversations for some time about the maestra stepping down. (A representative for the BSO said Alsop was in London and not taking interviews.)

“As we’ve thought about the future and worked to plan our future seasons, that’s been a natural part of those discussions,” he said, noting that Alsop’s tenure will go down as one of the longest in the BSO’s history.

Percussionist Brian Prechtl, co-chair of the Baltimore Symphony Musicians committee representing the players, said the performers were aware of the discussions and knew Alsop’s contract was up next year.

“It was hard to know exactly what was going to happen, but we knew they were in conversations,” he said.

Kjome said the orchestra’s stronger footing, coming out of a long labor dispute last year with more than $7 million in new funds and a five-year plan to create new programming and a path to financial sustainability, played a factor.

And he characterized the decision as amicable; in the world of classical music, it’s rare for a music director to remain with an organization in any capacity after leaving the top job.

“It says a lot about the strength of our relationship that Marin will continue to conduct the BSO in the years ahead,” he said.

Prechtl said the musicians are excited to continue performing with Alsop on the conductor’s podium.

“There’s lots of good times ahead for us with Marin, and we’re excited about that,” he said.

But it’s clear the relationship between Alsop and the institution was somewhat strained. During a meeting of a state work group tasked with straightening out the BSO’s finances, Alsop hinted her time with the organization was coming to an end, as The Sun reported last November.

“I find this is a difficult institution to get air time in because we don’t talk about the art first. Nobody ever talks to me. Barely,” she said at the time. “There’s no place to actually say these things safely, so I’m going to say them here.”

While it’s not yet clear what new role, if any, Alsop will take on after her contract in Baltimore expires, she shouldn’t have any trouble finding more work. As her international profile has risen, she’s landed two new gigs in the last couple years. In 2018, she was named artistic director of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.

And according to an Associated Press report from Feb. 5, Alsop has been given a two-year appointment as the first chief conductor of the Ravinia Festival, the annual summer residency of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia Park. She was named an artistic curator of the festival in 2018.

News of Alsop’s departure comes at a critical time for the BSO, an organization that in the last year saw financial setbacks and an existential battle over the orchestra’s status as a year-round performing arts group.

Kjome called for reducing the band’s concert calendar from 52 weeks to 40 weeks, pointing to losses of $16 million over the last decade.

The musicians argued those cuts would hurt the orchestra’s reputation and ability to retain talent, and said they’ve already made sacrifices both in their roster and salary.

Baltimore Symphony Musicians last year highlighted numbers compiled by the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians that show the BSO lags behind its peers in compensation.

The musicians’ contract expired at the start of 2019, and in May management abruptly canceled the summer concert season. Weeks later, the musicians were locked out. Without paychecks coming in, they protested on the streets and garnered public support with concerts in Metro stations, the Basilica and New Shiloh Baptist Church in West Baltimore.

In September, both sides reached a one-year deal with a pay increase of 2.4 percent per week over the course of a 38-week concert calendar. As part of the agreement, the organization created a standing Vision Committee, made up of musicians, board members, community leaders and other stakeholders, to plan for the future.

Further progress came in the form of the services of Michael Kaiser, an arts administrator once dubbed “The Turnaround King,” and a $6 million gift from donors to put toward operating costs, plus $1.25 million for the BSO’s endowment.

Earlier this month, the BSO adopted a five-year plan to add more cross-over concert series, take the orchestra around the state, collaborate with other arts institutions and strengthen its educational programs, among other proposals. The plan, which still requires additional philanthropic support, would help put the BSO on the path to financial sustainability, the orchestra said.

Alsop said of the plan: “I am delighted that this multi-year strategic plan will put the BSO on a road to stability and provide opportunities to build on its greatness.”

Hired in 2007 to much fanfare, Alsop replaced conductor Yuri Temirkanov.

Speaking with The New York Times shortly after taking over as music director, Alsop said she did not want to “be too much of a flag bearer or become a pariah” in her trailblazing new job. But she did suggest there was “this insidious comfort zone” for audiences and musicians that led to conductors being almost entirely men.

During her tenure, Alsop dedicated a considerable amount of programming to new music, commissioning more than 35 world premieres and, in 2017 and 2018, leading the New Music Festival.

In addition to OrchKids, which Alsop started with the help of the MacArthur Fellowship, she launched community outreach initiatives such as Rusty Musicians, encouraging people to pick up their old instruments, and the Academy, a sort of fantasy camp that allowed adult musicians to practice and perform alongside the orchestra.

Prechtl praised those efforts over the phone, noting that he was just leaving a class with the OrchKids.

“She brought a whole new sort of profile to the organization in terms of inclusivity and really creative, forward-thinking ideas of what an orchestra should be to its community,” he said.

The BSO recorded 14 albums under Alsop’s direction, including the 2009 Grammy-nominated recording of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.”

Two years ago, Alsop led the BSO in its first international tour in more than a decade, playing at the Edinburgh International Festival and London’s Royal Albert Hall.

In a press release, the BSO said it plans to honor Alsop during the 2021 season. More details on those celebrations will be revealed on March 4, when the concert calendar for next year is announced, Kjome said.

The BSO will form a search committee to pick a new music director. While it’s not yet known who will be on the committee, Kjome said the musicians will have a seat at the table.

There’s no deadline set for a new hire, he said, and it’s possible the BSO could use interim conductors if a pick hasn’t been made when Alsop’s contract expires–a practice he said is “not uncommon.”

The search will be completed when we’ve found the right person, and we will know when we’ve found the right person,” he said.

Asked about the qualities musicians might hope for in a new music director, Prechtl gave some expected answers, such as being a good collaborator and having a long-term artistic vision.

Just as important, he said, is finding someone who understands Baltimore and the BSO’s increased emphasis on being part of the community.

“That might not have been part of the job description of a conductor 50 years ago, but it really is a part of the job description of a conductor these days.”

This article has been updated.

Brandon Weigel


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