Marin Alsop conducting Eugene Symphony at Symfest.

Marin Alsop

It’s great to be reminded periodically how very good Marin Alsop is: Not just as a conductor – we know that – but as a musical ambassador and teacher.

She’s an amazing musician, as you might expect, given that these days she’s music director of the Baltimore Symphony. But Alsop, who conducted the Eugene Symphony from 1989 to 1996, also connects with her audience in a fundamental way that is rare among musicians of any kind.

When she turned around on the podium and began to talk about the adagio from Gustav Mahler’s unfinished 10th symphony, which she and the orchestra were about to perform, it wasn’t like being in music appreciation class. It was more like having a friendly engaging guide explain where we were all about to go, and then having her take us there.

Alsop’s guest gig with the orchestra tonight came as part of the orchestra’s 50th anniversary celebration, meaning the symphony is pulling out all stops this season, bringing in former conductors and Yo-Yo Ma and generally having a great good time with music and so much partying.

So tonight was as much about the party as it was about the music. Festivities started early, with wine and beer tasting in the Hult lobby and a performance by Ballet Fantastique and Trio Voronezh in the Soreng Theater, and disco dancing in the lobby with a couple DJs after the concert, not to mention jazz in the Soreng, all included in the price of admission to the main event. This was as much fun as a three-ring circus and a little disorganized, generally in a happy way, though I hear the wine and beer and food ran out early.

But it was the main event I was there to hear, and the main event was great. Alsop kicked off with John Adams’ perky Short Ride in a Fast Machine, a quick and upbeat piece, and then turned right around for that engaging talk about Mahler and his unfinished 10th.

Marin Alsop conducting Eugene Symphony at Symfest.

The disco party

The Mahler itself was lush and beautiful. Alsop has the conducting chops to keep the orchestra focused on the quiet, subtle moments as well as the big bombastic ones, and I was captivated throughout the unfamiliar work.

Without a break she moved on to a work by her mentor, Leonard Bernstein, his Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront, the only film he ever scored. I like Bernstein’s music a lot, but can’t help feeling trapped by a certain emptiness in a lot of film score music I’ve heard over the years, and though it was played nicely, even Bernstein was a bit defeated by the form.

She closed with James P. Johnson’s Victory Stride, a full-on orchestral jazz realization of a piano jazz work that sounded like something from Cab Calloway.

What is not to like here? When the trombones stood up for a pulse-ripping jazz riff, we knew had left the traditional concert hall behind. People didn’t just clap between movements, they clapped throughout the piece to acknowledge the solos.

The thunderous ovation when the Johnson piece ended demanded an encore, so Alsop and the orchestra turned around and played it – again. The second time through, a few people started dancing in the aisles.

It was a wonderful, informal, and splendid show, obviously designed to make the orchestral music attractive to non-traditional audience members – read “people under 70” – of whom I spied at least, oh, two dozen on the dance floor.

My only regret was that I was humming disco on the way home instead of James P. Johnson or Mahler. All progress, I suppose, has its price.