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Conductor Marin Alsop mixing it up with exciting L.A. Phil triple-bill this weekend

Guest conductor Marin Alsop to lead L.A. Philharmonic this weekend
Guest conductor Marin Alsop to lead L.A. Philharmonic this weekend
Grant Leighton

As one of the nation’s leading conductors, Marin Alsop loves the challenge of mixing radical, groundbreaking works with those representing more conservative, familiar approaches in concert programs. 

That’s the case with the concerts in which she’ll be leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a guest stint break from her full-time gig as music director of the acclaimed Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and, since last year, the chief conductor of Brazil’s São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. She’ll have Samuel Barber (the 20th century American composer she calls “a quintessentially emotional voice and an underrated composer to this day”) and Osvaldo Golijov (an Argentine-born rising star, “the quintessential melting pot composer… unafraid of pulling from many sources, and atypically sourced”) balanced by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a mainstay of classical repertoire for generations now, represented by his 6th symphony, the “Pathétique,” from 1893

So it’s pretty clear which follows classical convention and which breaks, and remakes, the rules.

“Barber is the classical composer in the concert,” she says.

Wait. What?

“His music is the most structured, most controlled, most formed,” she continues, referencing his brief Second Essay for Orchestra (composed in 1942), which will start off the Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon concerts. (The slightly shorter “Casual Fridays” evening will leave this off.)

“The Second Essay is a little jewel of cellular development. In a way it’s more connected, I think, to Beethoven than I think Tchaikovsky is.”

Again, what?

“Especially with the ‘Pathétique,’ which is so anti-establishment and breaks so many of the rules and expectations. Certainly structurally, having the third movement being the big, fast-moving movement and then continuing with the slow elegy outpouring as the finale really was quite unconventional.”

Of course, it’s hard to get that sense of just how unconventional it was when it was new, when audiences didn’t know what to expect.

“The fact that he would write a scherzo movement in 5/4 time, a wrong-footed waltz, and end the piece with such a slow, melancholic, portentous finale really did upset people. It was a moment in history when composers started to push the barriers of what was acceptable. But even in that context it was unconventional.”

Today, she laments, it doesn’t provide quite the same level of the unexpected.

 “I’m always disappointed when the audience knows too much about which movement comes when and they don’t clap at the end of the third movement,” she says. “I hope they indulge me and clap at the end of the third movement.”

That sense of surprise, then, falls to Golijov’s Azul. Surprise has been the composer’s stock-and-trade as he’s employed elements from his South American upbringing, his parents’ Russian-Jewish roots, rhythms derived from a multitude of cultures and traditions and sensibilities drawing equally on ancient folk, modern jazz and firmly grounded classical across a wide-ranging series of works including his landmark oratorio St. Mark’s Passion and opera Ainadamar. Azul is billed as a concerto for cello and orchestra, premiered at Tanglewood in 2006 with Yo-Yo Ma as the soloist, though it also spotlights the distinctive hyper-accordion, bursts of “ethnic” percussion, all with a lot of space for a vast range of textures. Here the cello will be in the hands of Joshua Roman. the hyper-accordion squeezed by Golijov regular Michael Ward-Bergeman. (An excerpt of a 2010 concert performance of the piece can be seen below.)

“It features a lot of landscape music, meaning for me music that creates atmosphere and places you,” Alsop says. “The orchestra is used to create a lot of effect, and the solo instrument, the cello, is used in a very vocal way — intoning, singing above this landscape. And of course he uses the hyper-accordion, which he loves. It’s a very traditional South American instrument which for each of us evokes a very different context, and not usually one we hear in a concert hall. Then he has these world percussion instruments that are beautiful and colorful and interesting. I wouldn’t say it’s a highly structured piece, but has a clear architecture to it.

“Compared to the Barber that is very highly composed, I would say Osvaldo’s music has more breath to it and more room. And Tchaikovsky’s music has more room than our typical ‘classical’ composers. So maybe Osvaldo’s music is the missing link between the two.”

It’s just this kind of insight that brought her a MacArthur Fellowship, the “genius” grant, making her the only conductor with that honor. Her only regret for this program is that she can’t conduct these with literal links, but for a variety of reasons will have to take an intermission between the Golijov and the Tchaikovsky.

“I’ve done concerts with segues between every piece,” she says. “That’s very cool. People can hear the juxtapositions more more strikingly.”