Marin Alsop named chief conductor, curator for Ravinia

Alsop’s new position takes the place of Ravinia’s former music director title, which had previously been held by conductor James Conlon for 11 years.

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Marin Alsop has been named the first-ever chief conductor and curator of the Ravinia Festival.

Marin Alsop has been named the first-ever chief conductor and curator of the Ravinia Festival.

Patrick Gipson/Ravinia Festival

Marin Alsop, an international conductor known for her innovative approaches to programming and audience development, has been named the first-ever chief conductor and curator of the Ravinia Festival, Welz Kauffman will announce Wednesday.

“She gets Ravinia, she gets the outdoors, she gets how the place works. She gets the mix of programming. It just felt right in every possible way,” said Kauffman, Ravinia’s president and chief executive officer since 2000.

Continuing the steady upward trajectory of a career that has included posts on three continents, she took over in October as chief conductor of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. In addition, she continues as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Alsop, 63, has launched such groundbreaking initiatives as the 18-year-old Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship to support the careers of emerging female conductors. She was named Gramophone Magazine’s Artist of the Year in 2003 and received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” two years later. 

“I have watched her go from strength to strength,” said Kauffmann, who has known her since the 1980s.

Alsop, who stepped down in 2016 after 25 years as music director and conductor of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, Calif., said multiple factors attracted her to the position. At the top of the list was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which has had a summer residency at Ravinia since 1936.

She also cited the festival’s “idyllic setting” on 36 wooded acres in Highland Park and its strong educational component, especially the well-respected Steans Music Institute for young musicians on the cusp of professional careers.

“I’ve spent so much time there already,” she said of the festival, “and I feel very connected to the audiences, the donors and the board, and, of course, the musicians and guest artists, so it feels like there is a real relationship already there.”

After first appearing at Ravinia in 2002-2005, she did not return until 2018 and 2019 to serve as curator of Ravinia’s extended celebration of the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. During the first season alone, she and Kauffmann organized a 14-concert tribute that included discussions and other supporting events.

Conductor Marin Alsop (center) leads the curtain call following a performance of Bernstein’s Mass at Ravinia in 2018.

Conductor Marin Alsop (center) leads the curtain call following a performance of Bernstein’s Mass at Ravinia in 2018.

Russell Jenkins/Ravinia Festival

Critics have sometimes knocked Ravinia for CSO programming that is too conservative, but Alsop has already shown that she is not afraid to shake things up. Right from the start in 2003, she presented John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 at the festival, and a year later, she led excerpts from John Adams’ opera, “Nixon in China.”

“She’s a really great conductor of all music,” said Corigliano, a five-time Grammy Award winner. “She also has a wonderful way of putting programs together that are provocative and interesting and really have people anxious to go the concert. And she speaks to the audience very well. She has a communication with them in a natural, down-to-earth way, and that’s so healthy for the 21st century.”

Although the Ravinia Festival will not announce its complete summer schedule until March 12, it did release details about the concerts that Alsop will lead from July 10 through July 17. Highlights will include a July 11 all-Rachmaninoff program and a July 17 line-up focused on variations, concluding with Elgar’s popular “Enigma” Variations.

Part of a group of events celebrating legendary women and the centennial of the 19th Amendment will be a July 16 screening of the iconic 1928 silent film, “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” Alsop will lead the Chicago Symphony and singers from Vocality and the Steans Music Institute in an accompanying performance of Richard Einhorn’s 1994 oratorio, “Voices of Light,” inspired by the movie – a Ravinia and orchestra premiere. 

“To me, programming has to have variety and some great change-up in order to grab everybody,” the conductor said.

John Bruce Yeh, the Chicago Symphony’s assistant principal clarinetist, described Alsop’s two-year appointment as chief conductor and curator as a “completely natural progression” and “great news.” He has known Alsop since the two both performed together in the 1970s in a student orchestra at the Aspen (Colo.) Music Festival.

He had particular praise for her presentation of Bernstein’s Mass, which debuted at the 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and then was all but forgotten. Alsop, one of Bernstein’s last protégés and his only female one, has been an ardent champion of the work.

She led Ravinia’s debut of the Mass in 2018 with 275 singers and musicians, and conducted an encore performance in 2019 that was recorded for a national television broadcast. “To see the way she had 100 percent control and just owned that was so impressive,” Yeh said.

Alsop’s new position takes the place of Ravinia’s former music director title. Conductor James Conlon stepped down in 2015 after 11 years in that role. Other important maestros who have held that earlier post include Christoph Eschenbach, James Levine and Seiji Ozawa.

Because the festival has broadened its programming focus in recent decades to incorporate a range of popular music, Kaufman said, the music director title became outdated. It came to wrongly imply that the person in the position was overseeing all the festival’s musical offerings and not just those related to the CSO.

“So, this just made a lot more sense,” Kauffman said, “and was more fitting and more targeted as to what is actually going on.” Alsop agreed, saying that she found it descriptive of what her role will be.

Kyle MacMillan is a freelance writer.

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