Marin Alsop or Mariann Edgar Budde: quick, have you heard of them? They are women who will be heard across our changing cultural currents.
I heard one conduct a classical concert and the other preach in the Washington National Cathedral, each in the light of a beautiful space last weekend. Alsop, maestra of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, spoke at length about American 20th century composer Aaron Copland, whose pristine masterpiece "Appalachian Spring" was on the program. She talked a bit much for my taste, to tell the truth. Her words did not fall gently. In fairness, most of the 2,000 in the full house seemed to enjoy her brand of breezy informality.
In her mid-50s, Alsop breaks the regal silence of the orchestra podium, which Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta, Simon Rattle, and great conductors from Berlin and Vienna to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles have adhered to over the years. A code of conduct, so to speak, that conductors only speak through the sphere of symphonies.
Alsop says good-bye to all that tradition—and so far she's keeping her place in line as the leading American woman in her field. As if to prove her bona fides to the audience at The Music Center at Strathmore, she mentioned she and Copland both spent sylvan summers up in the Berkshires at Tanglewood (the New England musical haven) as if they were tight. Who knows, maybe they were.
Then came a short recital of Copland's life story, set in Brooklyn, born into a Russian-Jewish family in 1900, far from West Virginia. Yes, the irony of a big city composer celebrating and capturing the lush swells of its rural landscape in brass, flutes, clarinets, and strings was not exactly lost on me. Most symphony-goers know a thing or two about major composers, and what is the program for, anyway, if not to dip into their bios again, like meeting an old friend?
Just when I thought the fine Baltimore orchestra would strike up the sweet Copland chords, Alsop walked us through the architecture of the piece. As part of the "Off the Cuff" series, this concert was meant to give you "backstory"—a Hollywood term that sat like a donkey on a horse. (More on that in a moment.). So said the program: "(Alsop) explores the backstory of classical music's greatest works and shares their secrets, scandals and twists."
On that November night, any form of spring seemed far away from the coordinates of Rockville, Maryland. At last the orchestra serenaded us with the lyrical melodies of the piece, which features the notes of "Simple Gifts," an old Shaker song. The players touched on a realm pure and poetic as the streams and mountain air of Appalachia. Hearing these musicians perform again was a simple pleasure, remembering them from my Baltimore days when I wrote for The Sun.
Then I witnessed a swift death for my old-fashioned notions. "Old American Songs," also by Copland, was up. One folk song concerned a cat—"I Bought Me A Cat"—and a baritone stood ready to lead a repertoire of barnyard animal and fowl sounds in a round. To help him, Alsop did something I never dreamt of. She lightly divided the concert hall into sections—and asked each to sound like a pig, or a goose, or a cow, or a duck, a donkey or a horse, when their turn came along. "Participatory," she called it. Like some sort of metaphor.
Was I the only one reaching for my smelling salts? I could barely breathe, much less moo. Sounds like a kindergarten class, my father said. Who knew what the concertmaster thought? What would H.L. Mencken, the dead sage of Baltimore, say? How would Copland himself cope? Or was I just not with the 21st century program?
I made it to the metro, every heavy step of the way. The high culture cops did not come when I called for them. After the fall from the balcony through the blond wood floor, my spirit couldn't take much more. Yet I had to marvel at the woman's moxie.
Sunday, and my soul still needed lifting. I walked over to the newly re-opened National Cathedral to hear the new Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington preach for the first time to her new flock. "Bishop Mariann" as Budde was identified on the program, seemed in tune with the floating Bach organ fugue, the processional hymn imported from Westminster Abbey and the warm-water welcome the nearly 2,000 congregants gave her.
So many had chafed while the cathedral closed for months after sustaining serious cracks, fallen angels and pinnacles from the East Coast earthquake. So many were happy to hear the bells peal again. Budde, bringing a fresh take from Minnesota, was elected bishop on a summer day and had arrived on a sunny November morning—with trees aglow in an autumn rhythm.
After a ceremonial three knocks on the cathedral door, Budde's voice resonated up to the Gothic-style arches from the first words she spoke: Grace and peace. Clear as a brook, she fell well on the ears. In her early 50s, this woman was also a first, a trailblazer who found her path to the national house of prayer in a time of trouble.
She gently questioned us in the transposed words of a familiar phrase: "What are you doing here on earth?" Like Alsop, she personalized the public space around her. Budde seemed to be not afraid of telling of her personal struggles. To wit, she shared something someone once said to her: you are a unique expression of God's creative genius. She said that to herself in the mirror every morning until she believed it, she added, as if speaking to a friend. To paraphrase part of her sermon: we all have one life, one precious life that we each are given.
"So teach us to number our days/that we may apply our hearts to wisdom." Hearing people say those ancient verses of the 90th Psalm, they seemed to spring anew within the walls of our city and the larger community. And I'm not a believer—except when the Word speaks that well.
Budde showed whose side she was on amid the Episcopal faith's uproar and sundering over ordaining gays and lesbians in the ministry. "God has led us to this place," she said, to a place of inclusion. Sitting near me were an African-American man and an Asian family that appeared to be visiting the capital. Washingtonians of every pinstripe, yes, but a good bit of everybody gathered there: young and old in varied walks of life at this crossroads. Maybe they even came from both political parties. For once in Washington, people seemed to let down their guard, as Budde cut through to a simple truth: "We have work to do."
As Budde closed, a story of her girlhood wish to be an acolyte—denied on grounds of being a girl—served as a disarming way to show how far the Protestant Church has traveled in her one life, since growing up in the '60s. (The rock of the Roman Catholic Church hasn't moved an inch.) When she finished, the congregation gave her a standing ovation that wasn't on the program.
Alsop and Budde, leaders in worlds that inspire and nurture the human spirit, are living proof that women are not just seen in concert halls and churches, on podiums and in pulpits—now they are heard. A distinction that makes all the difference. Women are only human, and some are better than others. But given more time and place, they might light the way to calming the blunderbuss-like public discourse, all the rage, all the time.
Public speaking before mixed audiences, believe me, is one of the last frontiers. Most women today have a hard time giving a wedding toast. From my study of the famed Quaker preacher who championed slave emancipation and women's rights in 19th century America, I know how rare Lucretia Mott's voice was, as it rose over the noisy public square. Mott had a mesmerizing gift that drew men and women alike to listen to her, like members of Congress on a cold winter night in 1843. Ralph Waldo Emerson came too, curious to hear the "flower of Quakerism" tell Southern lawmakers—to their faces—to free their slaves. Moral suasion was her strong suit.
The first first in many ways, Lucretia Mott dared to be heard all over antebellum America, not a pleasant hour in our history. A mob almost burnt down her family house in the heart of Philadelphia. Among her legacy's living heirs are Marin Alsop, Bishop Mariann, and, I might add, invincible Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has honored Mott as a major figure. On the higher education front, there's a trend of more universities turning to women leaders, such as the historian Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University and Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami since serving as the Cabinet Secretary of Health and Human Services in President Clinton's administration. That's really what I'm talking about, women who are not just smart, but wise.
A prayer for the country: let many more women leaders rise up, bright and shining, speaking words that strike chords. To be sure, we have some, but may need plenty for the season coming.