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Happy Returns

Eugene’s brightest old musical flame returns
Marin Alsop. Photo by Grant Leighton.
Marin Alsop. Photo by Grant Leighton.

“I will never forget that those formative years spent as music director in Eugene helped launch my career as a conductor,” says Marin Alsop in a press release from the Eugene Symphony. Maybe not, but someone sure forgot to tell whoever created her website. 

The word “Eugene” doesn’t appear on either the short or long version of Alsop’s biography on marinalsop.com, though the site finds room to mention her tenure at other posts before and after her seven years here: the Colorado Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony, and the Cabrillo Festival.

You have to drill down into the site’s “timeline” section to discover that Alsop was named conductor of the Eugene Symphony in 1989 and named conductor emerita in 1996. By then, the New York native was already guest conducting some of the world’s finest orchestras, with critics touting her as the likely first female music director of a major American orchestra — a prediction that came to pass in 2007, when Alsop was named music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which she brings to the Hult, April 2. 

What really matters to us is that Eugene hasn’t forgotten Alsop, where she demonstrated one of her two most prominent accomplishments: Like her mentor, the great American conductor/composer/advocate Leonard Bernstein, she’s one of classical music’s great communicators. Before Alsop was explaining the genre to millions of NPR listeners, she was bringing Eugeneans inside the music through her affable, informal talks and demonstrations from the stage. Easygoing, down to earth and humorous even in the toughest rehearsals, she’s won fans among musicians and listeners, and created outreach programs that have brought classical music to thousands of people who would otherwise never experience it.

Alsop’s communication skills facilitated her other main achievement: a deserved reputation as a powerful advocate for today’s music, particularly during her two decades at the helm of California’s wonderful annual summer Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, where she frequently featured the music of then-emerging, now-established (thanks in part to her) composers such as Christopher Rouse, Michael Daugherty and Jennifer Higdon. 

Alsop proved that contemporary audiences could embrace contemporary American works by featuring them in mainstream concerts during her posts in Denver and elsewhere, including here, where she maintains a strong base of friends and fans. 

Even though she’s since won Musical America’s Conductor of the Year award, made dozens of recordings, become the only conductor ever to win a coveted MacArthur “genius grant” and now regularly leads orchestras all over the globe (including, this year, taking a new post in Sao Paulo), Alsop’s actions belie her website’s neglect: She’s made return appearances to conduct her old band and, last summer, the Oregon Bach Festival orchestra.

Monday’s program features one of Alsop’s beloved Russian composers (Tchaikovsky’s passionate Symphony No.5) and three American composers: Aaron Copland, Joan Tower and Jennifer Higdon, whose thrilling, Grammy-winning percussion concerto was a crowd-pleasing highlight of last year’s Oregon Symphony season and will feature the same spectacular soloist, Scottish percussion master Colin Currie

Another former Eugenean makes a welcome return to town April 5, when jazz trumpeter/singer and composer/arranger Douglas Detrick performs at Sam Bond’s with fellow UO alum guitarist/mandolinist Kenny Feinstein and Portland singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/not-mayor Sam Adams. They’ll each perform in duo sets, with Detrick accompanied by Cherry Poppin’ Daddies guitarist Bill Marsh in folk song arrangements and originals. 

You can hear current UO jazzers all month, beginning April 6 at the school’s Aasen-Hull Hall, with faculty pianist Toby Koenisgsberg’s quartet playing jazz classics, contemporary compositions and arrangements of songs by the late, great Portland songwriter Elliott Smith. On Tuesday, April 10, the Oregon Jazz Ensemble, with current and former UO profs Idit Shner, Victor Steinhardt and Carl Woideck, play the immortal music of Duke Ellington. 

They’re not from here, but the acoustic guitar and fiddle duo of Molly Mason and Jay Ungar have performed at The Shedd so many times that they count as frequent guests. They’re back on March 29, with daughter and son-in-law Mike & Ruthy Merenda, better known as The Mammals. The Shedd also hosts a benefit for Dr. John Haines’s World Vision Missions, which helps treat eye diseases afflicting poor countries, featuring the music of Concrete Loveseat and Strange Desserts.