The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If conductor Marin Alsop’s done it, it’s probably because someone told her she couldn’t

Marin Alsop, who leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, will step down this summer. (Lexey Swall for The Washington Post)
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When Marin Alsop steps down at the end of August, concluding a Quite Literally Historic 14-year tenure as the first woman to lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra — or any major American orchestra, for that matter — she will leave a gap more profound than the space on the podium.

Alsop’s departure returns us to a sad status quo, a square one of sorts, with none of America’s major orchestras (no shade to Buffalo or New Jersey!) being led by women.

“But even more shocking to me is there will be no American leading an American orchestra,” Alsop says during a recent visit backstage at Baltimore’s Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

We sit there looking at each other in puzzled silence for a few seconds.

What is it we want from conductors and their orchestras? Are we listening for the skillful, collaborative realization of our favorite music? Are we attuned to the negotiation of absence and presence, transparency and interpretation, control and abandon that conducting demands?

Or are we really just looking for a guy flailing his arms, conjuring sound like a god might the weather, a clash of symbols over the clash of cymbals?

“There are all these stereotypes or archetypes that people want,” says Alsop, 64. “They want this maestro mythology. They want a maestro that is inscrutable, or inaccessible, or tyrannical. There are these lingering myths.”

Alsop satisfies exactly none of these stubborn criteria for conducting an orchestra, which is perhaps why her career has been an exercise in exhausting the potential of the word “pioneer.” Owing to her severe allergy to “can’t” and “don’t,” Alsop’s achievements are many and, more often than not, warrant some celebratory disclaimer to the tune of “first woman to [fill in the blank].”

“To always be the pioneer, to always be the first!” says Gillian Moore, director of music and performing arts at Southbank Centre in London, where Alsop has led several ambitious productions, including two stagings of her mentor Leonard Bernstein’s “MASS.”

“I think she deserves first and foremost to be recognized for her work, for the actual work,” Moore adds. “The work itself is extraordinary, and it’s distinct from what other people do. So we start from there.”

In that spirit, the BSO has arranged a fitting farewell. The Marin Festival is a multiweek tribute to Alsop’s legacy as a conductor and music director, but also as an advocate for education and access, a mentor for new composers and young conductors, and a force for women gaining leadership roles in classical music. The festival opens Thursday with a virtual celebration of her 13-year music education project, OrchKids.

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As part of the festival, WBJC 91.5 FM will air full BSO performances from Alsop’s tenure every Sunday at 1 p.m. through June 13. Alsop will lead two free outdoor performances at Meyerhoff and Strathmore (June 5 and 12, respectively). And she’ll conduct her final concert as BSO music director as part of a live televised gala featuring Renée Fleming and the world premiere of James Lee III’s “Destined Worlds.” The latter caps nearly three dozen commissions Alsop has brought to Baltimore, from such composers as Joan Tower, Anna Clyne, Christopher Rouse, Reena Esmail and Philip Glass.

Meanwhile, at another festival, Alsop is the subject (to some degree of chagrin) of “The Conductor,” a moving documentary covering her life and career from director Bernadette Wegenstein, set to debut June 14 at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s available for home viewing on June 15, and responsible for at least two instances of waterworks when a critic recently sat with a rough cut.

“I can’t think of anything less fun for me than 90 minutes of watching myself,” Alsop says. “But I feel like the film really is my story. So, yeah, it feels pretty honest.”

Watch and learn

Alsop was born in New York City in 1956 to Ruth and LaMar Alsop, professional musicians who had her sitting at the piano by age 2 and taking up the violin by 5.

At age 7, she enrolled in Juilliard’s pre-college program, embarking on what she describes as a “love/hate” relationship with the school that would extend well into her double-digits: In 1975, she’d transfer from Yale to return to Juilliard to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in violin performance.

One of the documentary’s most touching through-lines is Alsop’s relationship with Bernstein, whom she first saw onstage conducting one of his legendary Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic when she was just 9 — wise enough to determine that she, too, belonged on the podium.

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The film traces the long path Alsop cut through every detour and discouragement: Her formation of a swing band called String Fever and its subsequent struggle to . . . swing. The flat no she ultimately received from Juilliard’s conducting program (this, even after earning two degrees there as a violinist). Her philanthropist-funded formation of her very own Concordia Orchestra. Step by step, Alsop’s life offers a demonstration of DIY derring-do.

But her biography also is a lesson in the merits of failure, the values of imperfection and the importance of mentorship. One scene captures Bernstein bounding up onstage to bear-hug Alsop after a lesson at Tanglewood in which she finally led some Hindemith to his liking.

“When I started to work with Lenny, the great joy was that he was about ‘No f---ing rules!’ Excuse my language, but that’s what he would say,” she says. “He was all about the experience, never about perfection. He cared that it moved you.”

Alsop also admired the impact Bernstein had beyond the pit: his stylistic openness, his ravenous appetite for music new and old, and its ability to change the world.

“You haven’t ever let me down since I first wanted to become a conductor when I was 11,” she wrote Bernstein in July 1990, just months before his death. “But more than that, you’ve been a constant source of energy and integrity and leadership and innovation to our world.”

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“Conducting is really a metaphor for who you are as a person,” Alsop tells me. “Any kind of issues that someone has in front of the orchestra are just magnified issues that they have within themselves.”

Which may explain her visceral aversion to that word.

“The greatest disservice you can do to anyone,” she says, “is to say, ‘You can’t do that.’ ”

Power of the podium

Like Alsop, Gillian Moore, of the Southbank Centre, grew up as a musician, following the lead of boys and men as a student, often wondering what it was that earned them their seemingly natural claim to the podium, but never thinking to challenge it.

“We just didn’t see it,” she says. “I mean, we saw it in school. We saw it in church choirs. We saw women conducting all the time, every day. But we didn’t see them conducting Brahms or Beethoven.”

In Alsop, Moore has always seen something different: an “undaunted and undimmed” ambition. “She once said to me, ‘You know, I’ve been the first woman at the [BBC] Proms, and I’ve been the first woman to do major music directorship and that sort of thing. My ambition now is to be the first old lady on the podium.”

For Emmanuel Hondré, director of the Philharmonie de Paris, the problem at the podium is merely a model of a larger societal resistance toward gender equality.

“I think we consider the podium to be the power, and it’s clear that our society doesn’t want to trust women to have power in the top leadership positions,” he says via Zoom from Paris. In 2019, with Claire Gibault’s Paris Mozart Orchestra and the Philharmonie de Paris, Hondré launched “La Maestra,” a competition and academy for young women conductors from around the world. The first installment took place in a reduced fashion in March 2020, with a second planned for March 2022.

When I ask what beyond the conveniently broad indictment of “sexism” is standing between women and the podium, Hondré points to a now-standard argument that he just as quickly rejects: the notion that any drive for diversity and inclusion comes at the expense of quality.

“When you say ‘quality first,’ ” he says, “the conclusion is that you don’t want to change, because quality belongs to the men, and they have the power of the system.”

Add to this that conducting is not the kind of thing you can do at home with your orchestra of furniture. Young conductors need institutional support to have something to conduct. Hondré sees the encouragement and recruitment of more women into conducting as a way to shift the power dynamics of the orchestra.

“Let’s consider power differently,” he says. “Is power a mandate? Or is it a common decision? What kind of new power can we dream? What kind of new orchestra life can we imagine?”

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Hondré marvels at what he considers Alsop’s unique skill set: an ease with discerning the authentic, her natural teaching ability and the advantage of not being a “pure classical musician” — that is, a maestro with open ears. “Purity,” he says with a laugh, “it can be a danger.”

But he also admires her ability to see true potential in a young conductor years before it blooms, a skill she has been refining since 2002 with her Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship. Alsop’s one-to-one mentoring of young women conductors continued apace online through the coronavirus pandemic.

Though she arrived aglow with promising starts and early accolades (among them a 2005 MacArthur “genius” grant), Alsop’s tenure in Baltimore had a rocky start. At 48, she’d already led the Bournemouth Symphony, the Colorado Symphony, the Eugene Symphony and the Long Island Philharmonic, but her appointment in 2005 to replace Yuri Temirkanov was initially and roundly rejected by the musicians, with seven orchestra members on the 21-member search committee issuing a statement: “Ninety percent of the orchestra musicians believe that ending the search process now, before we are sure the best candidate has been found, would be a disservice to the patrons of the BSO and all music lovers in Maryland.”

Her departure, too, comes at a similarly fraught time for the BSO, which was struggling financially well before the pandemic.

But in the 14 years in between, Alsop has whipped the orchestra into formidable fighting shape. She has not only tightened and polished the orchestra, but also broadened its scope and widened its lens. She channels music out of her musicians and a palpable hunger into them.

The orchestra, which performs out of Meyerhoff as well as the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, has recorded 14 albums with Alsop, including its Grammy-nominated 2009 performance of “MASS” and a highly lauded account of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” She’s taken them to Carnegie Hall six times and, in 2018, led the BSO on its first international tour in nearly two decades, a trip that included its BBC Proms debut.

The opportunity to fill Alsop’s shoes presents both a daunting task and a critical opportunity for the institution and the orchestral landscape at large: A single door remains open to an opportunity that, especially in the wake of the pandemic, could easily skew more exclusive, not less. Who gets to walk through it?

(To that end, guest conductors will lead the orchestra through the 2021-22 season in what Tonya Robles, BSO vice president and chief operating officer, characterized to the Baltimore Sun as “live job interviews.”)

From the BSO, Alsop will pick up her pandemic-delayed debut as chief conductor and curator at the Ravinia festival (July 1-Sept. 26), where she’ll lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in seven performances and cast a spotlight on BSO assistant conductor Jonathan Rush — her former student at the Peabody Institute, and a rising star at Meyerhoff.

She’ll also continue to teach at Peabody (where she is director of the graduate conducting program), and will go on to serve as the first music director of the National Orchestral Institute and Festival (NOI+F) — a program of the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

“It’s a little bit like going from being the parent to the grandparent,” Alsop says. “You get to have all the fun and you don’t have to do the dishes anymore. I don’t have to go to any of the meetings. I just get to build programs and conduct great concerts.”

She’ll also dig into her 2019 post as chief conductor of Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra — where she is (you guessed it) the first woman to lead a Viennese orchestra, period. And for a dash of overdue justice, she’ll be receiving an honorary doctorate and delivering the commencement speech at Juilliard in June. I’d call it perfect, but that’s not really what we’re going for.

“I think that sometimes that search for perfection gets in the way,” the conductor tells me as we wrap up. “I think if you embrace failure, you have a much better chance of success. At this point, failure is a different character in my life. Almost like, oh, I don’t know — an old friend.”

The Marin Festival May 27 to June 19. For more information, visit bsomusic.org/themarinfestival.

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