Marin Alsop Shattered a Classic Glass Ceiling

In the world of symphony orchestras, male conductors have dominated the podium. Now there’s Marin Alsop. She hasn’t just made it big; she’s blown up the old model, staging CSI-inspired musical mysteries, joking from the podium and teaching underprivileged kids to love Beethoven

by Tamara Jones
marin alsop image
Photograph: Peter Yang

A flick of the baton unleashes the “Ride of the Valkyries,” the music gathering force, the glory building with each command Marin Alsop sends to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. With her hands, her face, even her feet as she rises up on her toes, Alsop gives shape in a thousand unspoken words to Richard Wagner’s familiar masterpiece. Her spirit and style as one of the world’s premier conductors have always won her bonus points from critics and audiences alike, but with her back to the symphony hall, what they cannot see is her smile of pure rapture. It’s what happens after the concert, however, that truly sets her apart.

The evening’s entertainment is not purely musical; it includes a mini play about Wagner, with brief scenes interpolated during the musical breaks. Then Alsop takes her final bow and leaves the stage, only to return minutes later for an “Off the Cuff,” as her popular post--performance chats with audience members are known. She’s joined by a couple of musicians, as well as the mini play’s actors and playwright. About 75 people have settled into the front rows to engage with Alsop about that night’s music and the life and times of the composer. A know-it-all immediately points out a mistake in the script’s genealogy of Kaiser Wilhelm II. This draws an acid retort from the playwright, but Alsop flips the moment with her dry wit, congratulating the audience member on his catch. “You win the washer and dryer!” she jokes.

Alsop’s willingness to converse congenially with her audience is one of the key traits that distinguish her from most of her peers in the classical--music world, where conductors have preferred to stay up on their pedestals ever since the egomaniacal Wagner—as Alsop has just explained—transformed orchestral music from what was basically a service industry into a cult of celebrity worship. But with symphonies around the country today struggling to remain relevant as audiences and attention spans keep shrinking, Alsop, 57, is doing more than bucking 150 years of tradition. She is also embodying an edgy new breed of conductor who believes redefining the role of the symphony may be the only way to save it. In 2005 the Mac-Arthur Foundation, recognizing her “extraordinary ability to communicate, both with her orchestra and with her audience,” awarded her a $500,000 “genius grant,” the first ever given to a conductor. “Through her musicality,” said the citation, “her skill in making the unusual understandable, and her championing of contemporary music, Alsop defies stereotypes and offers a new model of leadership for orchestras in the U.S. and abroad.”

That same year, Alsop was appointed music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO), making her the first woman to lead a world-class American orchestra. It was her biggest triumph, and the accolades have poured in ever since. “A born communicator and effective proselytizer for music,” said the New York Times after her September 29, 2007, debut at Baltimore’s Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. “With her kinetic conducting style and affinity for jazzy contemporary music, Ms. Alsop brings rhythmic verve to everything she performs.”

Another review, from CNN, commented on her musical fearlessness:  “She is a determined advocate for the frequently dissonant, darkly radiant compositions that can send the tux-and-Tchaikovsky crowd screaming into the night.”

First published in the October 2013 issue

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