The Edinburgh International Festival is just on the horizon, & the Mumble managed a wee blether with four members of The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; conductor: Marin Alsop, Vice-President: Tonya McBride Robles, Director of Operations: Rebecca Cain & Director of Artistic Planning: Abhijit Sengupta
Where are you from and can you describe your musical background?
Marin: When I was nine years old, my father took me to see one of the New York Philharmonic’s Young Peoples Concerts. I studied violin, but when I saw Leonard Bernstein conduct that concert and watched the freedom of his movement and his passion for the music, I knew then that I wanted to be a conductor. It was a dream come true years later when I had the opportunity to study with him at Tanglewood.
Tonya: I’m originally from North Carolina. My father is a minister, and my mother is a church musician, so I grew up singing in church. I started voice lessons at the age of ten and later attended a performing arts high school to study voice, music theory and music history. I graduated from the Peabody Conservatory and received a Bachelor of Music Education and a Performer’s Certificate in Voice; I studied voice with Phyllis Bryn Julson. Just before my final year of college, I worked as an intern with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in the artistic administration department. I found my calling as an orchestra administrator and am thrilled to serve the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as General Manager for this international tour some 25 years after I started as an intern.
Rebecca: I’m from a very small town in North Carolina. I played a variety of instruments before settling on the bassoon and becoming a professional bassoonist, my first career.
Abhijit: My parents are from India, but I was born in New Jersey and grew up mainly in Houston, where I began viola lessons at age 11. Although I attended an arts high school and was a very active young musician, I attended Yale University and graduated with a degree in economics. Campus life was musically rich, and my college years were full of orchestra concerts, chamber music, recitals and music history. I ultimately chose to pursue a career in music, attending the University of Southern California School of Music in Los Angeles for a master’s degree in viola performance before joining the New World Symphony. I was a special jury prize winner at the 1997 Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition and went on to serve as principal viola of the Florida Philharmonic, the Houston Grand Opera & Ballet Orchestra and co-principal of the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway before realigning my career to include administrative duties. I have continued to play professionally as a core member of the Grand Teton Music Festival and as a regular extra with the Houston Symphony.
For you, what are the qualities of a great orchestra?
Rebecca: I think the most important quality over the long-term is people who really listen to each other – musicians who are truly committed to listening every second they’re playing music, supported by everyone else who makes concerts possible.
Tonya: First, it’s all about the music – a great ensemble performing extraordinary repertoire under the leadership of a gifted Music Director. In this day and age, the music must be met with a connection to the orchestra’s community to bring relevance to a centuries-old art form. One of my favorite aspects of the work we do is watching Baltimore city schoolchildren hear live symphonic music for the first time at an education concert: this music retains the ability to transform and inspire.
Abhijit: In addition to the precision and virtuosity we have come to expect from the many great orchestras in the world, I really listen for sound quality. The conductor plays a major role in the way an orchestra produces sound, but there is a core sound that is always there with great orchestras. But greatness cannot only be achieved through artistic means. Great orchestras, in my view, also serve their respective communities through education, innovation and inclusion. The reason the repertoire endures is that it has the power to transform people, so the orchestras that are sincerely making an effort to ensure this incredible music touches the lives of as many people in their communities as possible are the truly great ones.
Who are your favorite three composers and which is your favorite piece by each?
Tonya: It’s difficult to narrow my favorite composers to three. Since I come from a vocal background and love choral music, two of my favorite pieces are the Requiems of Mozart and Verdi. They’re completely different in their approach but equally powerful. I also love the Concierto de Aranjuez of Rodrigo because I lived in Spain for three years shortly after marrying my husband, and this concerto is so evocative of a place and time I loved.
Abhijit: I couldn’t possibly name any favorites, but here are three of my desert island composers and pieces from the orchestral repertoire: Mahler Symphony No. 3, Brahms Symphony No. 3 and Sibelius Symphony No. 5. It’s hard to choose just one Sibelius symphony actually, as I hear them as one epic journey, but I include the fifth in this list because it was a rare moment of joy in an often dark life.
Rebecca: It’s almost impossible to choose, and my answers to this change a lot, but right now it’s:
Mozart – Gran Partita Serenade
Mahler – Symphony No. 2
John Adams – Dr. Atomic Symphony
What other genres of music do you like besides classical?
Abhijit: I listen to and love all sorts of music, and my own collection has a little bit of just about everything in it. I have presented a great deal of jazz in my career, so I have a special affinity for it. I also have a soft spot for Brazilian music.
Rebecca: I listen to a lot of different genres, but lately have been listening to lots of American “roots” music – blues, bluegrass, folk – with a side of the Hamilton soundtrack.
Tonya: I like a variety of popular music – my three most played albums are the Greatest Hits of Michael Jackson, the Original Cast Recording of Hamilton and U2’s Joshua Tree.
What do you like to do outside of working for the BSO?
Rebecca: I read, knit, and compete very slowly in triathlons. Knitting is a cover for my other hobby – watching tv.
Abhijit: I’ve always been a soccer player, but that is hard to do without a group or league of some sort. I’m new to Baltimore, but perhaps I’ll find one. Beyond that, I’m an enthusiastic, if somewhat mediocre, tennis player and an active hiker, especially in the mountains of Wyoming. I also love to cook and wish I had more time to read.
Tonya: There’s not a lot of time outside of work, so it’s fortunate that I love my job! I enjoy spending time with family and friends, especially at the beach. To that end, my family spends a portion of every summer at a Chautauqua community on the coast of Maine.
What is the history behind the BSO’s Edinburgh International Festival performances – how did they come about?
Tonya: Our Music Director, Marin Alsop, is so beloved in the U.K. that our invitation to the festival came to us initially through her. When the head of the festival heard the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra play live, he realized that we have a world-class orchestra. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has a distinguished international touring history, but it has been over a decade since the orchestra had toured abroad. I can’t wait for Edinburgh Festival audiences to experience what we’re able to enjoy each week in Maryland.
Abhijit: I joined the BSO in February 2018, and these performances were already planned. One of the programs is an homage to the great American conductor, pianist, composer and educator Leonard Bernstein, who was Marin Alsop’s teacher and mentor. Marin is a paragon of all that Bernstein represented, and she has been presenting concerts throughout the world in celebrating the Bernstein centenary.
Marin: I’m very excited to bring the BSO to Scotland for their Edinburgh International Festival debut. It’s especially meaningful to me that we will be performing the music of my mentor, Leonard Bernstein, on what would have been his 100th birthday, August 25. We’ll also be joined by the fantastic violinist Nicola Benedetti for Bernstein’s Serenade, which is one of the highlights of our tour repertoire. After Edinburgh, we go on to London for our BBC Proms debut and finally the National Concert Hall in Dublin, where we open their International Concert Series 2018-19 season.
Have you visited Scotland before? If so, when and which cities?
Tonya: My maiden name is McBride, and research into our family ancestry indicates that I’m descended from the Clan Donald from the Isle of Skye. As part of this research, my family visited Scotland and stayed in Edinburgh and the Isle of Skye. I’ve been back a couple of times, including a trip to Dunoon for the Highland Games, and absolutely love your beautiful country.
Abhijit: This will be my first visit to Scotland. I love Islay whiskeys, but sadly, I won’t have time to make a trip up there.
Rebecca: I’ve been to Scotland twice – both times to Edinburgh. (One of the visits was a whirlwind trip to prepare for this tour).
What pieces will the BSO perform at EIF?
Tonya: We are performing two concerts at the Edinburgh International Festival this year, one on August 24 and then a second on August 25, with BSO Music Director Marin Alsop leading both performances. The first concert includes Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird, Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 and Gershwin’s Concert in F with Jean-Yves Thibaudet. The second concert, which falls on the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, is a tribute to Bernstein. We perform selections from Birthday Bouquet, a set of variations written by eight different composers in honor of Bernstein’s 70th birthday. The program also includes Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Three Dance Episodes from On the Town and Serenade, with violinist Nicola Benedetti.
Fri, Aug 24, 2018, 7:30 pm Marin Alsop, conductor
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano STRAVINSKY //Suite from The Firebird
GERSHWIN // Concerto in F
SCHUMANN // Symphony No. 2 in C Major
Sat, Aug 25, 2018, 7:45 pm Marin Alsop, conductor
Nicola Benedetti, violin JOHN WILLIAMS, LUCIANO BERIO, JOHN CORIGLIANO // Birthday Bouquet
BERNSTEIN // Serenade
BERNSTEIN // Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
BERNSTEIN // Three Dance Episodes from On the Town