For this interview, I reached Marin Alsop on Skype from Brussels, where she was conducting the finals of the Queen Elisabeth Competition for pianists. She usually performs a wide variety of repertoire—did she have to do the same piece over and over there? “Three Profokiev Twos, Three Rachmaninoff Threes, and otherwise only one of everything else,” she said, laughing with relief.

VAN: Are you a fan of “The Wire”?

Marin Alsop: I actually started watching it for the second time. It’s really an incredible show. Of course everyone from Baltimore—it’s one of those things that’s double-edged, because we’re sad that people know about Baltimore because of “The Wire,” and that it’s so realistic. But then we’re happy that people know about Baltimore. We have a little bit of both.

Had you seen it before you become music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, in 2007?

No, I watched it after I got the job.

A PANORAMA OF BALTIMORE · PHOTO +REX (CC)
A PANORAMA OF BALTIMORE · PHOTO +REX (CC)

You are the founding director of OrchKids, a music program for children in Baltimore, that has been described as being inspired by El Sistema.

This is something that journalists say. I’ve never seen El Sistema. I think that the idea of having music available to young people is a great idea. But I couldn’t model it on [El Sistema] because I don’t know that program.       

I think it’s something that’s easy to say for people; it’s a reference point. But our program is quite different, because it’s more of an ensemble-based program, although we have a big orchestral component. We have smaller groups, and we also do some popular music. We have a jazz band—I don’t think El Sistema has any of that sort of thing.   

You know, the goal of the OrchKids program is not to create a great orchestra, though that would be fine to do. It’s to give these kids a sense of possibility. So they can envision themselves doing things that they had never pictured themselves doing. And whether it’s playing the violin or becoming a lawyer or a doctor or a software developer: it’s all good for me.

In an piece for Baltimore Magazine, a writer visited you at your place in a refurbished church. Do you still live there?

I don’t live there anymore, but I use it as an office now. My family moved, we have a house. But it’s an apartment in an old abbey. It’s really beautiful.

Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5, II. Andante cantabile con alcuna licenza; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop (Conductor)

Does the atmosphere ever make you want to produce longer, more cathedral-esque sounds?

[Laughs] No, I don’t think so. But I like old things. My parents, who were both professional musicians, liked to renovate old homes—they were antique dealers. So I like the old stuff. I like the connection to tradition, and beauty.

Have you found an equivalent working space in São Paulo, when you’re there with the Orquestra Sinfonica do Estado de São Paulo (OSESP)?

No. I’m in hotels down there. You haven’t been to São Paulo, have you?

I tried to go to Rio, but my tourist visa was denied, because I didn’t have much money at the time.

You know, the visa thing is really a pain in the neck. For me, every 90 days I have to get a new work visa. I have to figure out how to send my passport in every 90 days.

São Paulo is…you know, when you’re faced with the city, you think, I’m not going to be able to cope with this. But at the same time, the people are so beautiful. They’ve had all these political upheavals, and there are demonstrations with a million and half people that are completely peaceful. There’s some kind of beauty of humanity that I haven’t really ever seen.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3oMWrvLWo0E

Ginastera, “Malambo,” and encores by Edu Lobo and Oscar Lorenzo Fernandez; Orquestra Sinfonica do Estado de São Paulo, Marin Alsop (Conductor)

Against the background of this upheaval, what does it mean for OSESP to tour Europe in the summer?

To be able to represent Brazil, in this kind of high-profile settings, and to be able to surprise people, with the quality of the orchestra, the passion, musicality, and expertise, is something that’s great for the orchestra of course, but also for the state of São Paulo and for the country. Because people are able to see that Brazil is a lot more than these political scandals. It’s really about a very sophisticated and accomplished people. And I think that is what this tour is able to say—you know, maybe not in so many words, but people always say, ‘Wow, the orchestra is fantastic, I had no idea.’ It’s able to break some of the stereotypes that people have about Brazil. That it’s limited to soccer, samba. Or today: a political quagmire, Zika. Or whatever the impression today is.

A PANORAMA OF São Paulo · PHOTO The Photographer (CC)
A PANORAMA OF São Paulo · PHOTO The Photographer (CC)

In VAN, Hartmut Welscher wrote about the contrast between the area around the Sala São Paulo, where OSESP performs, and the world inside it. What’s your perception of this?

That’s probably the most stark illustration of what everyone knows to be the case. There’s an economic disparity, a disparity of living conditions, because the concert hall is really absolutely gorgeous. From the musicians’ point of view, it’s one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world, acoustically. But of course it’s in a very, very challenged neighborhood. The contrast of stepping out into the neighborhood from the concert hall is pretty extreme.       

Who comes to OSESP concerts?

That’s a little hard to say. I think that the thing to know is that about 60 percent of our tickets are free for the public. I would say that while the audiences tend to be middle to upper-middle class, which is typical, I think, in a concert hall, we really try to make it an experience that’s accessible to everyone through lots of free concerts and offers.

The price of tickets that are sold is very low compared to Europe or the United States. It’s an experience that’s affordable for everyone. Since it’s supported by the state, we have a mandate and a real mission to try to perform for as many people as possible.        

Villa-Lobos, “Momoprecoce – Fantasia Para Piano e Orquestra”; Orquestra Sinfonica do Estado de São Paulo, Marin Alsop (Conductor)

In places like South America, classical music can come along with almost colonialist connotations. Do you feel like that is something you have to work to avoid in Brazil?

Oh, that’s a stretch. I don’t think that it feels like an outpost. Also, I would say that it’s unique in that the orchestra has a mandate to commission five Brazilian works every year. Along with that, they also have a publishing arm that restores and unearths and promotes lesser-known or lost Brazilian music.

That said, I think in São Paulo we probably play the widest variety of repertoire of anywhere I go in the world. It goes anywhere from the Brazilian music—the typical Villa Lobos, or [Francisco] Mignone, [Camargo] Guarnieri, these composers that I had never even heard of, to a focus on Schoenberg.

Have you made any interesting finds or discovered unique pieces through the publishing arm of the orchestra?

I’ve gotten to know a lot more of Villa-Lobos’ music. Also, I feel a lot closer to his psyche. When you live with a culture, you start to understand and relate to it. I would say though for me the biggest surprises have been the composers Mignoni and Guarnieri. They’re more earlier 20th century.

But I’m always on the lookout for new, young, Brazilian composers. We’re playing a piece on tour by an older Brazilian composer, he’s in his 70s, Marlos Nobre. His stuff is very cool. It’s highly rhythmic, so it brings him that kind of Villa-Lobos element. It also brings him the Brazilian flair for popular music. I love getting to know music that has—I don’t know if it’s a folk element. Some kind of thread of that idea. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.