Merrin Lazyan produces weekly shows and features for WQXR, including Reflections from the Keyboard, the Young Artists Showcase, and the Classical Report (which recently featured her Music in the White House series). She is ...
Marin Alsop: Raising the Bar
Monday, March 20, 2017 - 05:10 PM
Earlier this month, on International Women’s Day, Marin Alsop — Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (OSESP) — conducted the OSESP in a live-streamed concert featuring works by three female composers. As the first woman to head a full-time major American orchestra and the first women to conduct the Last Night of the Proms concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, Alsop has been opening doors and advocating for women conductors throughout her career. She’s spoken out about gender inequalities and double standards in the profession, and she’s created fellowships and master classes specifically designed for training women.
Born to two musicians who wanted more than anything for Alsop to follow in their footsteps, she began playing the piano and violin at a very early age. When she was nine years old, she attended one of the New York Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts and saw Leonard Bernstein conduct for the first time. This was the moment she knew that she would be a conductor, though she couldn’t possibly have predicted the important role that Bernstein would play in her life as a teacher and a mentor. “You don’t have to have a mentor that looks exactly like you,” she told WQXR host Elliott Forrest (listen to the interview in the link above), “but you have to have people that believe in you.” And Bernstein believed in her. “The greatest gift he gave me is the gift to be myself. The most important thing is to be the music, and be sincere, and be authentic. That was a great gift.”
Alsop’s career choice may have been simple and instantaneous, but her path to success was strewn with obstacles. Her dream of standing on the podium was first challenged by an early violin teacher, who told her that “girls don’t [conduct].” Devastated, she recounted the story to her mother, who assured her that she could do anything she wanted to do and be anything she wanted to be. The following morning, when Alsop went downstairs for breakfast, there was a long wooden box on the table full of batons. “It never occurred to them that I couldn't be a conductor,” she told The Baltimore Sun after both of her parents died within 11 days of each other in 2014. “They were awesome that way. They had a very can-do approach to everything. My work ethic is a very natural byproduct of living with these two people.”
Her work ethic has served her well. Alsop has led major orchestras around the world, and she is the only conductor to have won the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in honor of exceptional creative work. But many years, awards and accolades into her career, Alsop still faced a tall hurdle after being selected to conduct the Baltimore Symphony in 2005. Approximately 90% of the musicians publicly protested her appointment, claiming that she was unqualified for the position. For a brief moment, Alsop thought that this might be the end of her career, and she even considered declining the job, but she knew that this was an important crack in the glass ceiling and that she had to forge ahead. She laid out her artistic vision to the orchestra, and this won her the support that she needed and deserved. As soon as she walked onstage to conduct the Baltimore Symphony for the very first time, the audience gave her a standing ovation before she’d even lifted her baton.
When Alsop trains young women conductors — both as the director of the Graduate Conducting Program at the Peabody Institute and through the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship — she is honest with them about the challenges they will face in their careers. They will be judged differently than their male counterparts, and their gestures will be interpreted differently. In an interview with the Independent, she explained that “the biggest challenge for women would be about how to deliver a gesture that elicits a powerful sound without any kind of apology, and without any kind of negative reaction from the musicians.”
Alsop believes there’s a long way to go before women conductors achieve true parity with men and she’s concerned that the modest advancements that have been made will eventually be used to justify a return to the status quo. But she continues to encourage her female students and mentees to be unapologetically powerful. “I think, as that person out front, it’s important for me to create a pathway for people coming through. I don’t want it to be so hard for the next generations.”
Alsop is prepared to continue clearing the thorny path for women conductors, all the while holding firmly to her belief that music can change lives. On the evening that she became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, she addressed the audience with a message that was both honest and hopeful: “I think it’s clear that inequality is one of the greatest challenges facing us today — whether it’s gender, racial, economic or ethnic inequality. Now music is not going to solve these issues, but music has the power to change the hearts and minds of even the most hardened dissenter.” If anyone has the courage and power to change the world through music, it’s Marin Alsop.