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Storm Scores: Finding Poignant Reminders In Water-Damaged Music

This past week has been filled with some truly tragic stories of loss and devastation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. There are also a few stories of near misses and disasters averted. Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, fortunately has one of the latter.

Before the storm hit, Alsop had gone to California, where she is leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend; she realized that she would probably get trapped by Sandy on the wrong coast. During the storm, an enormous tree came down on the roof of her studio. "Luckily, no one was there," she says. "It hit the studio on the corner, and luckily there were some friends over, and they went in and grabbed scores — hundreds of scores! — because there was water gushing in, and they dragged them in the house. It could have been much worse. I feel for people who had much worse happen to them."

When conductors' scores are damaged or lost, it's a very big deal — it's not just a matter of buying new sheet music. "What happens is that as I'm studying, as any conductor studying — we mark the score, meaning that we're analyzing the structure, the phrases," Alsop says. "So every page of the score might have up to, say, 50 markings that are personal to that particular conductor. And I mark the scores in different colors, too, so there's some red and blue; I only use two colors, but I know some other conductors whose scores look like a rainbow."

"It's almost like a shorthand for the actual conducting," she continues, "so that I know who I want to feature, who I want to bring in. Of course many of the scores I actually conduct from memory, but one needs that information during rehearsals, and this is really a huge investment in terms of time."

Among Alsop's scores that were damaged were the ones laying out on her desk: the pieces she's conducting next month and right after the beginning of the New Year — like Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7, "Leningrad" and Prokofiev's Fourth Symphony — but she thinks even those will be salvageable.

And when she turns to them, now they'll tell their own story of having survived Hurricane Sandy. "I shouldn't admit this," Alsop says ruefully, "but there are several scores that I look down at and remember that cup of coffee immediately, because there are the remnants on my score. I think for me, every time I conduct Shostakovich's 7th Symphony now, I'll see the watermarks on the score. And I think that brings a sense of poignancy to the experience: that we're all so vulnerable to nature. My heart goes to so many people that have lost so much more, and have experienced so much more devastation. Maybe that, in a way, is a wonderful thing to be reminded of when I'm in the throes of conducting a great work that brings us all together and connects humanity."

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