HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — When Marin Alsop began her conducting career in the 1980s, women were a rarity on podiums. She had to blaze her own path, including establishing the ensemble Concordia in New York City and serving as its music director. She kept pushing ahead, marking breakthroughs all along her career path, like becoming the first woman to be music director of a major American orchestra (the Baltimore Symphony) in 2007 and the first to lead London’s storied Last Night of the BBC Proms in 2013.
To help women conductors coming behind her, in 2002 Alsop founded the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship, which provides coaching and other career support. And she has pushed boundaries in many other ways, promoting new music, championing underrepresented artists and unfairly forgotten composers, and constantly pushing innovative approaches to programming.
Few people in classical music were more qualified to establish a new mini-festival, Breaking Barriers, at the Ravinia Festival in the northern Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Ill., where Alsop serves as chief conductor and curator. The first installment of what she and Jeffrey Haydon, president and chief executive officer of the Ravinia Festival, hope will become an annual event was subtitled Women on the Podium, and it focused on the still-substantial gender inequality in the conducting world.
The mini-festival, which ran July 29-31, included a symposium, a screening of a documentary about Alsop, and an outdoor display about dozens of noted female conductors from the 20th and 21st centuries. It also incorporated four concerts, including two featuring the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which has been the summer festival’s resident orchestra since 1936. Although both firmly embraced the notion of “breaking barriers,” only the opening July 29 concert squarely fit the theme of women on the podium. It showcased four women conductors, including three Taki fellows.
For the centerpiece of the concert, Alsop ingeniously chose Michael Daugherty’s Time Machine for three conductors and orchestra. It was inspired in part by the 1960 movie of the same title, which Daugherty, an avid film buff, recalled seeing as a child. With a nod to science fiction, the composition explores notions of time and time travel. It is built around the conceit, one could even say gimmick, of the orchestra being divided into three sections (one larger and two smaller), which simultaneously perform music at different but interrelated tempos and meters. This structure requires three conductors to keep it all organized and together. “This is really a concerto for conductors,” Daugherty said in a Ravinia Magazine interview. “That’s how I was thinking of it.”
When Time Machine was debuted by music director Mariss Jansons and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2003, it received a mixed review from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette critic Andrew Druckenbrod, who wrote that the piece was overly ambitious and strayed too far from the pop-culture-tinged fun of some the composer’s earlier works. Daugherty might have taken at least some of that criticism to heart, because he cut one of the original three movements, leaving “Past” and “Future,” giving the work a tight, well-integrated feel that might have been missing before.
This is not the kind of a selection that is ever likely to enter the orchestral mainstream because of its unlikely structure and the challenge and cost of assembling three conductors for one work. Even Daugherty wondered if it would ever be performed again after its premiere. But it has become something of a showpiece, one that works perfectly in special circumstances like these, and it is revived every few years.
The piece opens with “Past,” with echoes of Renaissance music and off-setting Romantic strains cast against a range of percussion instruments, including woodblocks evoking the ticktock of a clock and rainsticks suggesting the flow of sand through an hourglass.
Setting the dystopian tone for “Future,” the more compelling of the two sections, is a disconcerting harp solo with scratchy plucks and crash-like swipes of the strings, all potently realized by Chicago native Julia Coronelli, principal harpist of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. From glasses of water played by rubbing the rims to clipped pizzicatos and disorienting slides in the violins and other strings, not to mention all manner of other laser-like tones and high-pitched cries, an eerie, engrossing soundscape is formed. The competing tempos grow more fervid, and the movement roars to a thundering conclusion.
Alsop has long championed contemporary music of all kinds, and she is especially at home in large, complex works like this one, bringing to it a sense of organization, clarity, and calm under pressure. With the help of two former Taki fellows, Laura Jackson, music director of the Reno (Nev.) Philharmonic, and Jeri Lynne Johnson, music director of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra in Philadelphia, she adroitly held all the converging elements together and brought plenty of punch to this performance. Although one might have expected a more unsettled, even cacophonous feel since so many seemingly conflicting elements were happening at once, everything fit together so neatly that it was often not possible to immediately discern what sounds were coming from where and how it all interconnected.
Opening the concert was Jessie Montgomery’s Source Code, a short work that goes far in explaining why the New Yorker is so much in demand. Montgomery currently serves as the Chicago Symphony’s composer-in-residence, and she filled a similar role this summer at the Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute, a pre-professional training program. Source Code was first created for string quartet, the version performed earlier this summer by Steans’ students, and it was heard here in its 2013 string orchestra form.
The work opens with a long, sustained chord and continues with suspended notes, plush if sometimes distorted harmonies, bent bowing techniques among the strings, and floating clouds of sound, each blurring and merging into the next. Bubbling through all of this is a bluesy tinge. “This one-movement work is a kind of dirge, which centers on a melody based on syntax derived from Black spirituals. The melody is continuous and cycles through like a gene strand with which all other textures play,” Montgomery wrote in her accompanying notes. The work eventually picks up speed and intensity, with more emphatic chords, before ending with a quiet fade-out. For such a short composition, it has quite a hypnotic effect and lingers in the memory.
Polish conductor Anna Duczmal-Mróz, a 2022-24 Taki fellow, seemed completely at ease leading Montgomery’s work, effectively communicating with facial expressions and an animated left hand to go along with the main beat provided by the right. With expansive gestures, she urged the orchestra forward when the music gained momentum and drive. In short, she acquitted herself well in what was clearly a major opportunity to show off her skills.
Probably the only work on the Chicago Symphony’s two programs that is performed regularly is Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet, which is best known in its 1940 version. But even here, Alsop broke with convention, creating her own suite from the ballet, assembling sections from the three suites Prokofiev extracted. It is hard to argue with what Alsop has done, because the 12 sections offer a representative sense of the ballet and convey the high points of the story. Alsop and the orchestra reveled in the music’s beauty and intensity, evocatively conveying its ever-changing flavors and emotions. Notable solo voices within the orchestra were Tzuying Huang, bass clarinetist of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and Chicago Symphony principal clarinetist Stephen Williamson, and the brass made a vivid impression throughout, especially the soaring French horns.
The Chicago Symphony’s second concert on July 30, which was filmed for later broadcast on public television’s Great Performances series, had little to do with the theme of women on the podium, although, of course, it featured Alsop at the helm. But the two works that were featured broke barriers in other ways, starting with Osvaldo Golijov’s Rose of the Winds, which was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony in 2006 and premiered a year later. This was a fascinating reprise, and Golijov was in attendance.
The composer, who was born in Argentina to Jewish immigrants from Romania, is known for musical works that traverse time and place, and that is certainly the case with Rose of the Winds, which draws on the past and present and Eastern and Western influences. The title refers to the multi-point figure on a compass or map, also known as compass star or rose, that indicates the four cardinal directions and their intermediate gradations. The program notes carefully spell out the musical origins of each of the five movements, starting with the first, “Wah Habbibi” (My Love), based on a religious lament that goes back at least to the early 18th century.
The work focuses on four unusual soloists, starting with Cristina Pato, who opened the piece with a long, doleful, impassioned solo on the gaita (Galician bagpipes) that suddenly gives way to rollicking, dance-like music. It was led in spirited fashion by the klezmer clarinet of David Krakauer, one of the world’s best-known exponents. And indeed, this back and forth between slow, mournful, and up-tempo sections, continued throughout the piece. The other soloists were Kayhan Kalhor, a renowned master of the kamancheh, a small Persian bowed string instrument, and Michael Ward-Bergeman on accordion.
Indeed, the biggest drawback of this piece is that the orchestra feels underused, serving as little more than a backdrop at times to the central players. All four soloists were amplified in the festival pavilion (everything is amplified for listeners on the Ravinia lawn), which caused some almost inevitable imbalances because the orchestra was unamplified. Furthermore, the sound mix was sometimes off, making it almost impossible at times to hear the accordion.
Golijov’s suite culminates with “Tekyah” (A Place for Mourning), which incorporates a piece he wrote for a television special commemorating the 60th anniversary in 2005 of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is written for brass, clarinet, accordion, and shofars, the ram’s horn trumpets played on Jewish High Holy Days. For this performance, the horns were performed by young and old members of the adjacent Highland Park and Glencoe communities, who were spread throughout the audience. The interchange of these bellowing instruments with the performers was an oddly haunting and exhilarating experience. As with Time Machine, Alsop, an advocate of Golijov’s music, admirably handled the myriad and unusual elements of this piece.
Rounding out the program was Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3, (Kaddish), which was premiered by Bernstein and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 1963. It is rooted in the Kaddish, a hymn praising God that is chanted or sung during Jewish prayer services. Bernstein combined elements of the Kaddish in both Aramaic and Hebrew with his own narrative, which begins with a dispute with God and ends with a resolution. Though not as emotionally powerful or as seamlessly integrated as Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, another work from almost the same time that similarly combined sacred and non-sacred texts in a hybrid form, this work nonetheless packs a considerable punch of its own. And this performance had an even more moving and pointed effect than it might otherwise, because it came just a few weeks after the mass shooting in Highland Park, with memories of that horrific event still painfully fresh.
Taking the part of the speaker was Jaye Ladymore. Although she is an accomplished stage and television actor, it was hard not to wish for a more involvied reading. The soprano soloist has a limited but essential role, and Chicago native Janai Brugger, a top-level operatic singer, was superb, bringing a quiet dignity and subdued intensity to the first of her two fine solo sections. The young singers in the Chicago Children’s Choir displayed admirable energy and spirit, and the Chicago Symphony Chorus was as communicative as ever. Alsop, one of Bernstein’s last protégés, clearly has a knack for his music. Here, she set a sharp edge to some of the composer’s most dissonant writing and maximized its expressiveness.
Freed from some of the constraints that big fall-to-spring classical institutions operate under, summer festivals can and should take more risks and, indeed, break barriers. That is exactly what Alsop and Ravinia did successfully with this three-day mini-festival.