Women Shaping History:
Conductor Marin Alsop
Although she is quoted as having said on her appointment last July as Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony that she was not only “thrilled” and “honored” at the opportunity to lead one of the country’s largest orchestras, and that she hoped being the first woman to head a major American orchestra would point the way “for the women who follow me,” Maestro Marin Alsop does concede that progress so far has been slow. In the twenty years she’s been in the field, she says, “the number of women on the podium has not changed.” Clearly, however, the excitement over her selection and her critically acclaimed recordings and video-taped performances (a stage production of Candide with the New York Philharmonic in 2004 was nominated for an Emmy) mean that the 49-year old Alsop, who also won a MacArthur Fellowship last year—the first time a conductor was a recipient—will be a de facto inspiration for women who want to conduct: “Ultimately” the numbers “will change,” and women in conducting will become a “nonissue.” In a provocative article on women conductors that appeared in Contemporary Review some years ago, freelance writer Anna Hodgson refers to conducting as “the last bastion of male supremacy,” sexism attributable not to audiences or orchestras but, albeit unconsciously, to boards of directors who buy into stereotypes. The article also suggests that prospective women conductors have a tougher time than men in a world that turns on patronage, contacts, and image. Conductors “have for so long been promoted as imposing, larger than life, acceptably aggressive, personalities.” Such alpha myths make it difficult for women to compete, especially in regard to getting positions with major orchestras.
Maestro Alsop attributes her success to being “a superb student”—putting in long hours of dedicated practice, a “work ethic” that began with playing the violin and continued with conducting. She believes, however, that everyone can learn valuable lessons studying music—how to budget time, how to develop self-esteem. A violinist who studied with the legendary Ivan Galamian and Margaret Pardee, Marin Alsop fell in love with conducting at the age of nine, inspired particularly by Leonard Bernstein, whose “charismatic, engaging, all embracing” personality and iconic lectures on music for youngsters confirmed her own leanings. She studied with Bernstein at Tanglewood, as well as with Seiji Ozawa and Gustav Meier. Though she never considered any discipline other than music as a profession, she always wanted to have a leadership role, and conducting offered a way to be involved “in the architecture of pieces,” beyond playing an instrument. Like Bernstein, Maestro Alsop says she enjoys people, and no doubt her disposition to address audiences and build community was central in her selection by the Baltimore Symphony board which, reportedly, went to unusual lengths in the winnowing process, including polling local residents and holding town hall meetings.
She loves the Romantics, Brahms and especially the Russians—Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev Shostakovich—but recent raves also have come in for her lyrical interpretations of contemporary American composers—Copland, Barber, Bernstein. Reviews of her concerts stress her energy and passion but also her controlled elegance, wit and warmth of sound. Her success in the U.K. particularly as Principal Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony, led to numerous awards, and wherever in the world she has appeared as guest conductor, the media responses have been consistently laudatory. Her tenure as Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony formally begins in 2007, but she will be continuing as Conductor Laureate with the Colorado Symphony, where she has been Music Director for the last 12 years. Maestro Alsop also gives master classes, though not to her two-and-a-half year old son, who often sits with her at the piano having “fun” with “The Magic Flute.” He also attends rehearsals and will call out, “good job, Mama.” This July Education Update readers will have a chance to concur in his judgment, when his mother, a native New Yorker who attended Juilliard, leads The New York Philharmonic as part of the summer program in the park.#