Marin Alsop: No Longer A One-Woman Show
Marin Alsop is one of the world’s foremost conductors. She got there by helping change the classical world.
A trailblazing conductor, Marin Alsop made history in 2007 when she became the first woman appointed as music director of a major American orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony, a position she held for 14 years. While there, she created bold initiatives to provide innovative programming, reach new audiences, and expand music education and access to traditionally underserved communities.
Alsop was educated at Yale and Juilliard and played violin with the New York Philharmonic and New York City Ballet. She has served as music director for Colorado Symphony, Eugene Symphony, the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, and the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music; conducted such major international orchestras as the London Philharmonic and London Symphony, the Cleveland and Philadelphia orchestras, and the Orchestre de Paris; and was the first female conductor of the Last Night of the Proms. In 2002, she founded the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship to foster other talented women in her field. Among her many awards, she is the first and only conductor to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.
When in 2005, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced that Marin Alsop would take over as music director, she faced immediate resistance. But it didn’t come from outside the orchestra, it came from the musicians, who felt that they hadn’t had enough say in the process of her selection.
Marin Alsop: You know what should have been and was at least momentarily, one of the happiest days of my life, you know, when the chair of the board at that time, called and said, ”Would you consider taking on the music director position?” I think that turned into probably the worst nightmare of my entire life.
Back then, Alsop was that rarest of rare birds, a top level female conductor. Knowing the objections of the musicians she would have to lead, close colleagues urged her not to take the job. Instead, she asked for 10 minutes alone with the orchestra.
Alsop: So I walked out, they were quite surprised to see me, I think, but it was a private conversation. I asked the management and Board not to be there. I outlined the areas that I thought I could be helpful in to them, you know, not the least of which was conducting. And I said, “But I’m—I won’t sign this contract unless I have your support.” And so I started to walk off and the chair of the committee said, ”You have our support.” And, you know, whether it was genuine or not in that moment, is hard to know, but I needed to have that in order to begin.
Now nearing the end of her tenure as music director in Baltimore, Alsop has accomplished much in the concert hall and recording studio and beyond. Under her leadership, the orchestra released their first recordings in years and garnered a Grammy nomination for “Best Classical Album in 2010”, for recording of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.”
She also conducted the BSO, on its first international tour in over a decade. In addition, she founded ORCHkids, a year round, during and after school music program, designed to foster social change. Marin Alsop’s journey into music began at a young age, and she’s never really known anything but a life rich in music. Born in New York City in the 1950s, both her parents were professional musicians, playing with the New York City Ballet. She knew she wanted to be a conductor from the age of nine and was the rare child who had a mini-orchestra at her disposal. Her parents would invite their friends and colleagues over to play, so that their precocious daughter would have someone to conduct. All of this music so early in her life, she says, was key in helping to form her character.
Alsop: I believe wholeheartedly in the musician, as a kind of prototype for the human being, because all of the skills you need, are transferable to everything else. So, for my parents, it was all about, you know, ”First of all, the show must go on, no matter what, we don’t miss a concert.” And we had some funny things, you know, whether we had to abandon cars and run and, and of course, as a kid, I was dragged along to everything. So, I saw them, and you go on stage and nothing, you pretend nothing happened, you know, it’s a whole, it’s all about this, preserving the integrity of the music at all costs.
Alsop: I also watched them say, ”Well, you know, we really should have a concert hall on our house and let’s build it.” So then the three of us are trying to build this, huge, enormous living room, which eventually we did.
Marin Alsop found an early cheerleader in one of the 20th Centuries’ most towering musical figures, Leonard Bernstein. She’s one of the last conductors to learn firsthand from the legendary composer, conductor and pianist, who was a lifelong advocate for the transformative power of music, despite his rather traditional perspectives on who should be on the stage and who should remain in the audience.
Alsop: From the minute I saw him conduct and he turned around and spoke to the audience, I felt engaged and gripped and that he was speaking right to me and I think he had that capacity, also, even though there were thousands of people around him and cameras and everything, you know, if he was focused on you, he was focused on you and everything else fell away. When he would teach me, give me a lesson, even in public, I didn’t even notice anybody else was there.
Alsop: There was a funny moment where, usually, when I finished conducting, he would jump all over me and jump on the podium and go crazy and I finished and where is he? And he was out sitting out in the audience with his head down and I thought, “Oh gosh, what happened?” And so I went out and I said, “Maestro, what’s, is something wrong?” He said, ”I can’t figure it out. When I sit here and close my eyes, I can’t tell you’re a woman.” And I said, “Well, look, if you want to close your eyes through my concerts, I don’t mind.” I mean, we had a good laugh about it, but he told me that he was trying to figure it out. He was trying to work out for himself, why gender should be an inhibiting factor or a determining factor and he couldn’t find any reason. So, I think for me, it was actually extremely validating because he was willing to think in a broader way, you know, “Why aren’t women accepted, because I can’t hear any difference?”
By the time she took the reins in Baltimore, Alsop was well qualified for the job, having already held leadership roles in orchestras in Colorado, Richmond, Virginia, Eugene, Oregon, and St. Louis. She had also guest conducted major orchestras across the U.S and in Europe and Asia, and in 2005, she became the first conductor to receive a so-called, ”MacArthur Genius Award.” For Marin Alsop, music isn’t something for a select few to be appreciated from afar, it’s something to share and she’s made that sharing a cool part of her work in Baltimore.
Alsop: I was pretty shocked at the fact that the city is 80% African-American, 70-80% African-American and we had one African-American musician in the orchestra. And when you look across the orchestras of the United States, the world, actually, there are very few people of color in these orchestras and why is that? I mean, it’s a fundamental reason because kids don’t have access to these instruments and training when they’re little, you know, and you have to train from when you’re very little, it’s like the Olympics, in order to achieve that level of acumen. So, I set out to try to change that for the future, I never anticipated I would change it for my tenure, but for the future of this city. And we started a program with 30 first graders, in West Baltimore and now we have 2000 kids playing musical instruments, but the most amazing part is that the first graduates, they’re now graduating in high school, and they’re going to music schools, they’re being accepted. I never dreamt that the first generation of this program, would, some of them would turn into professional musicians, they want to go into music, into education, into music management and they’re hugely successful. The orchestra has gained a reputation in the community for caring and feeling somewhat relevant to the community it inhabits. And I think as we move forward, especially post COVID, these qualities in arts institutions, are going to be critical. We have to be responsible to the communities we live in and we have to represent them and we have to figure out ways to open the doors wide and share with everyone. And I feel that at least I could make a start.
The other major gap in the orchestral world was, for a long time, the gender divide. Alsop has said that she thinks the title of ”First Woman of Conducting,” is a quote, “really silly epithet,” yet it’s not without merit. In addition to being the first female music director of a major American orchestra, she was also the first woman to conduct The Last Night of The Proms and, in 2019, the first female chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. And though she modestly rejects the title of ”Trailblazer,” today, there are at least a dozen young women following in her wake. And she wasn’t just a role model, almost 20 years ago, she started the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, to train promising female conductors.
Alsop: We have to acknowledge that women were really, almost kept out of this profession. I mean, not just conducting in that leadership role, I mean, as leaders, women have been really kept at the fringes and only one or two let through now and then. But that can’t be because there were no talented women, as we see, there were talented women that weren’t acknowledged, and there are dozens and probably hundreds of women who missed that window of opportunity, you know, I just want to say it out loud because I feel for them and, you know, I’m happy that young women are now getting opportunities because well, it should have happened all along the way. So, I don’t think it’s that suddenly, all these talented women popped out of the earth, I think they’ve been there all the time, but suddenly, they were able to get a foot in the door, and maybe even now the door is open for them. I was busy for 30 years saying, “Where are, why aren’t there more women? What can I do?” And it’s a matter of creating opportunities but suddenly, every orchestra wants a woman on the podium because it’s part of what they ”have to do,” and I’m thrilled because it is an opportunity now. I just want to ensure that it’s not just a trend and they’re not just doing it because they have to do it, but because it’s genuine and sustainable.
This will be Marin Alsop’s last season at the helm in Baltimore. She’ll continue to occasionally conduct concerts, as music director laureate, but she’ll be spending a lot more time in Europe. Still, she says that she and her partner, horn player Kristin Jurkscheit, will stay connected to Baltimore.
Alsop: I think the timing is perfect to leave. I believe that I’ll be tied for the longest tenure as music director of the Baltimore Symphony. I think we’re going to try to stay connected to the city and to the community in ways that can be helpful and supportive. I’m devoted to the ORCHkids Program, you know, that’s really, I want to see it succeed and reach more and more kids. So, while we may relocate, I think we’ll continue to keep our roots here in Baltimore. This kind of life, where you keep having to build relationships and then give them up as you move on, I think at a certain point in life, it doesn’t feel quite worth it, especially when you feel so connected to a place and I really love this city.
But at the start of her final season with the Baltimore Symphony, the global pandemic effectively shut down any chance of her being on stage with her musicians one last time.
Alsop: I think it’s a little bit ironic and bittersweet that my last season probably won’t exist. You know, maybe I’m having a nice, relaxing moment, but it’s definitely not a diminuendo, it’s definitely taking my time to ramp up to the new crescendo. I think that music can connect people where words can often antagonize them. So, I look at it more as a vehicle rather than an end goal. Music is a great comfort, it brings joy, it brings memories, it brings sadness, you know, when words escape us, music can often be the consoler. So, I feel privileged to live a life with music as my vehicle.
Alsop’s new home away from home is Vienna, a famously musically misogynistic city. Its symphony orchestra, The Vienna Philharmonic, refused to hire female musicians for the first 155 years of its existence and only acquiesced to international pressure in 1997. It wasn’t conducted by a woman until almost a decade later when Simone Young took the podium at the Musikverein. But Marin Alsop isn’t much concerned with past omissions in the Austrian capital, she’s here to do what she’s always done, change lives through music by speaking quietly and carrying a small stick.