Marin Alsop is the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. ( KK Ottesen/For The Washington Post)

Marin Alsop is the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra in Brazil. She lives in Baltimore with her partner and son.

Do you remember when you first decided you wanted to be a conductor?

Sure, I was 9 years old, and my father took me to a young people’s concert at the New York Philharmonic, and the guy who was conducting was awesome. He was jumping around and having great fun. I had been getting into a lot of trouble for having too much fun, and as soon as I saw him I thought, Oh, that’s what I want to be! His name was Leonard Bernstein.

Yes, I think I’ve heard of him. And the interest was abiding?

It was like almost a calling — what I imagine when people say they have a religious epiphany. I never changed my mind, not one day.

And now you’re the first female conductor of a major American symphony. How do you feel about that? And what does that “first” bring with it?

I’m very proud to be the first, but I’m also pretty shocked that we can arrive at this year and there can still be firsts for women. I started a fellowship for women conductors in 2002 because there just weren’t enough. And, like anything, if there are very few opportunities, every opportunity becomes make-or-break. And in conducting, you can’t even practice until you go to the orchestra.

Right, that’s pressure.

You really need time to make mistakes and try things. So I decided I would try to create more opportunities for young women just to be seen, and also have them do parts of concerts with me so I can kind of protect them and coach them through.

Like the double wheel in driver’s ed?

A little bit. I’ve had 11 recipients of the fellowship, and all 11 are working for American music directors. The level of applicants just in the past few years has gone up exponentially. Clearly women are getting more opportunities earlier — finally.

Seeing you must be an important visual.

I think it helps. It also starts to get our larger world comfortable with the idea. Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t particularly think it’s about prejudice, I think it’s about comfort — people just aren’t used to it. And when you’re not used to something, you’re not comfortable with it. The more and more women we see — not just one, me — the more comfortable people will become.

Do you have advice you give young conductors, or that you, yourself, live by?

As someone growing up having very few opportunities, I always try to maximize every opportunity. And conducting is very much a metaphor, I think, for living. Because you have to exist and enjoy the moment, or it doesn’t work.

How much do the audiences affect you?

Audiences are critical. I think we don’t share enough with our audience about how much they affect a performance. Because every single one of those people is there, breathing the way they’re breathing or coughing — that actually is part of the outcome of the performance. We can feel when they’re rooting for us and focused; we can feel if they’re tired or they had to work too much and they’re distracted. Listening to classical music is a very rigorous task and requires a lot of focus.

Do you have tricks for grabbing them back when you feel them slipping?

You know, I think they’re just carried into your moment: If we’re not connecting [as an orchestra], it’s much easier for the audience to get distracted. But if a hundred people are really intent on having an emotional experience, it’s very hard for people not to be swept along. And that’s why it’s so great: We can take you out of where you’ve been and transport you to somewhere else.

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