Published: December 20, 2019

"Too Hot to Handel" @ 15 Years: A Conversation with Marin Alsop

Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah, the uplifting, inspiring take on Handel’s classic Messiah oratorio, celebrates 15 years in Chicago on January 18 and 19, 2020! This jazz, gospel, blues, and rock twist on the Messiah was originally created in 1992 by the composer and conductor Marin Alsop, Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Conductor of Honour of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, and the Chief Conductor of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Alsop was kind enough to take the time to chat with the Auditorium about her career, the inspiration behind Too Hot, and why the show keeps people coming back year after year!

Auditorium Theatre [AUD]: You were recently deemed as one of the 18 greatest conductors of all time by the United Kingdom’s classical music station Classic FM. How does it feel to be in the company of other legendary composers such as Hector Berlioz and Arturo Toscanini?

Marin Alsop [MA]: I didn’t know that I received that title, so that’s nice to know! Of course it’s a great honor. I’m glad at least I’m alive – [those others] are dead!

AUD: You were the first woman to lead a major American orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. How has that experience shaped you and what do you hope others can learn from your experience?

MA: I think what we’re seeing now is that the field is finally opening up and being much more receptive to women, but it’s been a very long journey and I hope that because of my success, future generations will have an easier time of it. I started a fellowship for women conductors in 2002 called the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship and we’ve had 23 recipients, and of those, 16 are now music directors, so I think it’s making a difference.

AUD: You are very busy, conducting and working around the world! What’s on deck for you in 2020?

MA: I’ve just wrapped up my music directorship in Brazil, so I’m taking the title of Conductor of Honour. I’ll do one or two projects with them every year. I’m focusing more on my work in Europe, so right now, I just launched a global project called the “Global ‘Ode to Joy’” to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th anniversary. So I’m doing a reimagined version of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with 10 orchestras on six continents. It’s fantastic – New Zealand, Australia, Africa, China, going all around. We launched it in São Paulo, in Brazil. It’s amazing.

AUD: You created Too Hot with Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson in 1992. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?

MA: I had this idea because of so many of my non-musical friends. I’d say “Hey, do you want to come and hear the Messiah?” They would say, “Oh, you know, we like the part where you stand up, but otherwise it’s a little old-fashioned.” And then I started thinking about how the “Hallelujah!” chorus could lend itself to a gospel treatment. And then I started going through the score and looking at it and thinking, “Oh, you know, this could be a jazz waltz, and this could be a shuffle, and this could be this.” And I have a passion for, particularly, American jazz – I had a swing band for 20 years. So I went to Gary and Bob, who are two of my dearest friends, and super talented guys. They’d written for my swing band and I’ve done a lot of commercial work with them and I said, “Look, I’ve got this crazy idea, do you want to come on board?” And so we sat down and went through the whole score and I suggested different feels for different pieces and that’s how it started.

AUD: Why do you think Too Hot resonates with audiences?

MA: I think because it’s so much fun. The fun element is really, really important and I think it feels current. It feels like it’s of today. I think it breaks down that sense of so many rules in the concert hall, and when people start clapping and dancing, it’s just a great moment.

AUD: What messages do you hope people will walk away with after experiencing Too Hot?

MA: For me it’s all about joy and hope. That’s what the Messiah is about, and I’m sure that’s what your performances are always about and that’s why you’ve had so much success.

AUD: Can people who have never heard Handel’s original Messiah still enjoy Too Hot?

MA: Yes, I think it transcends those kind of barriers. There are many people I know who have never heard the original Messiah and only gone to Too Hot to Handel for years – year in, year out!

AUD: 2020 marks the 15th year that Too Hot has been performed at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre. What are your hopes for this production moving forward?

I hope that you’ll continue to do it in such a successful and compelling way, and I hope that I can bring [Too Hot] around the world so it has more of an international life. I think it’s a rendition that really speaks across language barriers and it’s a piece that I hope can continue to bring people joy, hope, and a sense of unity.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

"Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah"

Join us on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend to witness the transformational powers of t...