Marin Alsop On Her Swing Orchestra And Stepping Down From The Baltimore Symphony

Apr 18, 2020
Originally published on April 18, 2020 2:07 pm

In this time of social distancing, hunkering down and chatting remotely, we might learn some new things about each other. For example, you might know Marin Alsop as the longtime music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, one of the leading figures in classical music around the world and a frequent guest on Weekend Edition. But you might not know that back in the 1980s, she also led a swing band.

Alsop was co-founder of String Fever, a string ensemble that played arrangements of swing classics, and she played violin with the group for two decades. String Fever recorded two albums in the '90s and the former members still reconvene regularly.

"We mostly drink now, but it's still a lot of fun," Alsop jokes.

NPR's Scott Simon spoke to Marin Alsop about the origin of String Fever, how swing music consoles her in a difficult time and her recent announcement that she will be stepping down as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra when her contract runs out next year. Listen in the audio link above and read on for highlights of the interview.

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Interview Highlights

On the origins of String Fever

This was kind of a crazy outgrowth. We had a string ensemble, just a bunch of friends and I, and we decided that maybe we should go into rock and roll but we couldn't find anyone to write us any music. I happened to do a gig in 1981 with a super talented arranger named Gary Anderson, and we became fast friends. And he said "Well I can't write any rock and roll, but I could write you some swing music." And that's how it all started. My friends said "You're crazy," and of course that's how everything starts with me. For me, it really represents a whole part of my youth, really connecting with my friends, creating something new. This was like the garage band for classical musicians.

On the importance of swing music and what it offers in this time

I think it captures a moment in history, particularly in American history, where we're celebrating what it is to be American. And I love that moment, I love reliving that moment and bringing it into our own time. I think especially today, when people are longing for a connection — a connection to each other, a connection to their past — this kind of music really can bring warmth and light to people's lives.

On stepping down from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

The great thing for me is that I'm going to keep a position with the Baltimore Symphony and so I'll do a few weeks every year. But I think it's a moment, really, to follow up on some of these bigger projects that I want to do and really explore some repertoire that I haven't had some chance to focus on; do a little more opera. So I'm looking forward to it.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In this time of social distancing, hunkering down and chatting remotely, we sometimes learn some new things about each other. So for a few years now, we've been chatting about this kind of music with a friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIN ALSOP'S ORCHESTRATION OF "SYMPHONY NO.9 IN E MINOR, OP.95, B.178, 'FROM THE NEW WORLD': III.SCHERZO: MOLTO VIVACE")

SIMON: Marin Alsop, of course, is music director of the Baltimore Symphony, one of the leading figures in classical music around the world. But did you know the maestra can swing?

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIN ALSOP AND STRING FEVER'S "STOMPIN' AT THE SOVOY")

SIMON: Maestra Marin Alsop was co-founder of String Fever. She played violin with that group for two decades beginning in the early 1980s. They even scored some local press coverage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIN ALSOP: It's wonderful to see all different ages. You know, people our age in their 20s and, you know, middle aged people come. Even my parents come. So...

SIMON: The maestra joins us now from Baltimore. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALSOP: Great to hear your voice.

SIMON: Tell us about this group. How did it come about? Who was in it?

ALSOP: Well, this was sort of a crazy outgrowth of - we had a string ensemble, just a bunch of friends and I, and we decided that maybe we should go into rock n' roll, you know, because it was just a plan B. But we couldn't find anybody to write us any music. And I happened to do a gig in 1981 with a super talented arranger named Gary Anderson. And we became fast friends, and he said, well, I can't write any rock n' roll, but I could write you some swing music. And so that's how it all started.

SIMON: And you released a couple of albums. And we have something, a piece of music called "Fever Pitch."

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIN ALSOP AND STRING FEVER'S "FEVER PITCH")

SIMON: Who wrote that?

ALSOP: This is a great - one of many, many great charts written by a fantastic composer named Dave Remmlus (ph). Dave happened to come into the club that we played at. We played at a club every Thursday night up on 97th Street in Columbus in Manhattan. It was called Mikell's. But we played there every week for several years and Dave came in one night. And what we were doing kind of blew his mind, and he started writing original swing music for us. And oh, just super talented guy.

SIMON: Marin, what do you love about swing music?

ALSOP: You know, I think it captures a moment in history, particularly in American history, where, you know, we're celebrating what it is to be American. And I love that moment. I love reliving that moment and bringing it into our own time. But I think especially, you know, today when people are longing for a connection, a connection to each other, a connection to their past, you know, this kind of music really can just bring warmth and light to people's lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIN ALSOP AND STRING FEVER'S "FEVER PITCH")

SIMON: When you were last with us, you were just beginning a yearlong celebration of Beethoven leading up to the 250th anniversary of his birth. That project on hold now. What happens?

ALSOP: Yeah. You know, of course, this is a - something that we're all experiencing now, you know, with cancellations and trying to redate and reschedule. But I find it kind of ironic that this year, 2020, is the huge anniversary year for Beethoven, a composer who suffered so greatly. And he also suffered from isolation, you know, being deaf, and so wanted to connect with other people. And here we are in his anniversary year, unable to connect. And the project I had embarked upon, a Global Ode to Joy, was scheduled for six continents with 12 orchestras, nine new texts. We should have been performing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in this reimagined version at the Southbank center Thursday night and tonight, too. But instead, yesterday, we put a call out to not only the National Youth Orchestra of musicians, but to anybody in the U.K. who wanted to step to their doorway and play the Ode to Joy, with me conducting.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF "ODE TO JOY")

SIMON: Oh, that's wonderful. And of course, there's been news recently that you'll be stepping down as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra when your contract is up next year. What do you see ahead for yourself?

ALSOP: The great thing for me is that I'm going to keep a position with the Baltimore Symphony. And so I'll do a few weeks every year. But, you know, it's - I think it's a moment, really, to follow up on some of these bigger projects that I want to do and really, I think, explore some repertoire I haven't had a chance to focus on, do a little more opera. And its always good. Change is always good for everybody. So I'm looking forward to it. And, of course, you know, the more I can speak with you, the happier I will be.

SIMON: Well I was just about to say I - you know, I look forward to more opportunities to speak with you. I think that's great.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIN ALSOP AND STRING FEVER'S "IT DON'T MEAN A THING (ARR. G. ANDERSON FOR STRINGS)")

SIMON: Marin Alsop, formerly - way formerly - a member of String Fever, soon to be music director laureate of the Baltimore Symphony. Thanks so much for being with us today. Speak to you soon.

ALSOP: Talk to you soon. Stay well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIN ALSOP AND STRING FEVER'S "IT DON'T MEAN A THING (ARR. G. ANDERSON FOR STRINGS)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.