Can Marin Alsop break another glass ceiling?


Marin Alsop’s conducting students took turns taking the podium in the rehearsal room of Baltimore’s Meyerhof Symphony Hall recently. They waved their batons in front of an imaginary orchestra and practiced Stravinsky’s complex “The Rite of Spring.”

Some conductors use poetry to teach: what a piece of music means, how a certain sound should feel. Alsop served as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for 14 years (a term that ended in 2021), spending countless hours at Meyerhof Hall teaching technical, nuts-and-bolts.

In an 11-beat measure, she suggests using the last beat as a pickup for the next measure, giving the player more clarity. She pointed out some trouble spots: Transitions are “often too loud, too fast, too fast” and the wind tends to follow the strings at the same time, rather than in unison.

“You have no accompaniment,” she said to a rising maestro who seemed to give too much leeway to an invisible musician. “You are responsible.”

Alsop, 67, is responsible in many ways. Last month she made her Metropolitan Opera debut conducting John Adams’ new production of El Niño. Next season she will lead for the first time the Berlin Philharmonic, perhaps the most distinguished orchestra in the world.

She recently recorded Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with her ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra in the famous Musikverein, an experience that reminded her of one of her mentors, Leonard Bernstein.

“I stood there thinking, ‘I’m recording Mahler 9 right where Lenny was standing. Mahler Stand up,” she said backstage after a rehearsal in Baltimore. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Yet as Alsop looks toward the next chapter of her already groundbreaking career, something is missing: another American orchestra. In 2007, she became music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, becoming the first woman to lead one of the country’s 25 largest symphony orchestras. (There is still only one woman in the group: Natalie Stutzman of the Atlanta Symphony.)

Alsop hopes she can continue her steady rise and compete with one of the few most respected and well-resourced American orchestras, such as the Chicago Symphony, New York or Los Angeles Philharmonics. Although she accomplished nothing, she still longed to be on the board again.

“I love being a guest,” she said. “But really, that pales in comparison to me being able to build something in the community. That’s really what I love.

At a time when orchestras are eager to connect with the wider community, Alsop’s efforts to carve out a place in the field are testament to the persistent dearth of Americans and women on America’s most prestigious podiums.

“For me, it’s a big regret,” said David Foster, Alsop’s longtime manager and now president emeritus of Opus 3 Artists. “Because she is as qualified as anyone on the planet to be a North American music director in the early 21st century.”

Born in New York in 1956 to two professional string players, Alsop quickly fell in love with the violin. But when she was a child, her father took her to a Bernstein Youth concert at the New York Philharmonic, and conducting became her dream.

It was a difficult path for women from the beginning: Alsop earned two violin degrees at Juilliard but was rejected three times from the school’s conducting program. She had to form her own ensembles—String Fever, a small group that orchestrates swing music, and Concordia, which dabbles in jazz crossovers—to gain podium experience.

But Bernstein’s guidance in the late 1980s helped her, and she began to be employed by small orchestras in the 1990s. Her new music credentials have been bolstered by her long-standing leadership of the Cabrillo Contemporary Music Festival in California. In 2002, she founded the Women Conductors Scholarship Program, which has flourished. (This is the toxic, domineering guru character played by Cate Blanchett in the 2022 film Tár, who borrows several characters from her life without her knowledge or permission. One of the details.

The beginning of her tenure in Baltimore was rocky, with some players criticizing her as a lightweight who had been forced into their appointment by orchestra management—a reaction that may have had something to do with the fact that she was a woman and a lesbian .

But she stood her ground and won over the musicians. Now, when she returns to the city, she resembles a conquering, grinning hero. When she entered at the start of a concert a few weeks ago, some in the crowd stood and cheered.

Finally, as the audience dispersed, she nonchalantly walked onto the podium and took her score from the podium, prompting yet another round of applause. Addressing the audience before Ives’s Symphony No. 2, she was charming, funny, and clever as she and the players glimpsed some of the old American tunes woven into the structure of the work.

She founded OrchKids, a music education program for disadvantaged children in Baltimore that remains one of the most inspiring success stories in the field. She still teaches at Peabody College, a division of Johns Hopkins University, and she and her partner, Kristen Yurksheit, still live in the city. Members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra use her parents’ instruments and bows, which she donated to the orchestra after their deaths; the piano used to accompany students in “The Rite of Spring” once belonged to her family.

“I really believe that orchestras are civic institutions,” she said. “To be effective, leaders must be committed to their communities in a profound way.”

No one can say that Alsop doesn’t have a profound commitment. In Baltimore, she did everything a modern music director should do.

“She was so driven,” said Deborah Borda, most recently executive director of the New York Philharmonic. “She’s smart. She’s in the prime of her life. I don’t have a crystal ball, but she’s in the prime of her career.

However, his career was a little different in the United States. Alsop has long enjoyed success in the UK, having led the Last Night of the Proms three times since 2013, the culmination of the BBC’s widely televised summer festival. At that time, she also organized an orchestra in São Paulo. In 2019, she joined the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, and she also conducted the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra.

“Most of my efforts are in Europe these days,” she says, “and I find that orchestras there have a different attitude. I wouldn’t say it’s looser, but there’s more flexibility.

She sometimes found U.S. managers reluctant to accept her ambitions for her institution. “I can have a lot of ideas because I have a lot of ideas,” she said. “And ideas can sometimes be interpreted as more work.”

“One of the reasons why I took this position in Poland,” she adds, “is that the woman who runs the orchestra and the concert hall is so good. She is a thinker and we can sit down and discuss these ideas, and I like that.

But some of those overseas contracts have expired, and the pendulum may have swung back across the Atlantic for her. At the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where she became principal conductor and curator in 2020, she has the ability to conduct a wide range of music and lead education and mentoring efforts.

“She has an incredible ability to listen, be humble and adaptable,” said Jeffrey Haydon, the festival’s president and chief executive. Fortunately, he added, Alsop didn’t need to be the star of every event: “She was always aware. to whether this is for the best.” Better for her to support this moment, or lead that moment, or be that moment.Many artists must yes At that moment, that was it. She can do it—she has enough gravitas and ability to do it—but it’s not her default.

In January, the Philadelphia Orchestra announced she would succeed Stutzman as its next principal guest conductor. Alsop was an important character both in Philadelphia and on tour, but it remained a supporting role.

One of the problems she encountered when she was looking for a U.S. director position was that there weren’t many openings at the level she was seeking. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra are all currently looking at the matter.

“It made perfect sense for her to have another orchestra,” said Foster, her former manager. “But there’s not a good number. The higher you go, the thinner the air becomes.

Although Alsop proved that it was possible to be a female music director of one of the country’s largest symphony orchestras, as a woman no longer young, she now faced another glass ceiling.

“Age discrimination is much worse for women,” she said. “So that’s one of my new banners: fighting for mature women to get the same time, the same opportunities and the same consideration.”

There is also disagreement about her musical output. Some observers and players thought she was solid but uninspired; some admired her. Foster said there were “tons” of jobs they hoped for but didn’t get, and that choosing a music director was “partly about chemistry.”

“What happens on the podium is what matters,” he added. “There, I think she was more relaxed and happy. Because she was conducting better and better orchestras more and more, she was ready to let the musicians play more. When you’re young and have a young orchestra At the time, not everyone knew that much, so you had to direct a lot, and I think she became a better conductor that way.

Alsop is well-known enough to be the subject of a documentary, “The Conductor,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2021. Yet strangely isolated.

“It was my idea to invite her to the Met,” John Adams said of his new production, “El Niño.” “The funny thing is: I didn’t think Peter Gelb” (the company’s managing director) “would have thought of that, but when I mentioned it, he said, ‘Of course.'” Marin often doesn’t The attention comes, in part, because she has a humble, generous, even unassuming personality, which is not a typical job description.

“Every time Peter Gelb introduces me, it’s ‘This is Marin Alsop, her long-overdue debut,'” laughs Alsop. “It makes me feel like People thought I had been on a boat somewhere at sea. I’ve been here, you know?

“I wish I had a platform that could really leverage my curiosity and commitment, because I have a lot of that, to help another American orchestra,” she added. “I don’t know if that’s going to happen. But I’d love to do it because that’s what I love the most.



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