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

But what draws nearly as much attention as Alsop’s musical talents is her gender. According to the website of Milan’s La Scala opera house, she was “the first female conductor ever to stand on [our] podium.” She was the first woman to conduct the Boston Pops, and in September 2013 she became the first woman to conduct the prestigious Last Night of the BBC Proms in London’s famed Albert Hall. For Alsop, these achievements are a source of frustration as well as pride. Despite her trailblazing, the number of women to make it through the doors she has opened remains barely a trickle. Men dominate the podiums of the world’s major orchestras, and according to the League of American Orchestras, a scant 10 percent of member orchestras with budgets over $2 million (the BSO among them) have female conductors in the top leadership positions, with the title music director. Only in the past 30 years have women begun to be considered for full-time positions in many European orchestras; the famed Vienna Philharmonic, once an all-male preserve, has hired a mere handful of women and sacrificed state subsidies because of its discriminatory stance. “There is a lot of sexism in classical music,” says Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize–winning music critic who is now a professor of music and journalism at the University of Southern California. “There have been gifted women all along,” but, Page adds, brilliance and acceptance don’t always go hand in hand.

As part of her own quest for acceptance, Alsop early on embarked on a study of gender differences in the way conductors communicate with their orchestras. “It’s been critical for me to analyze societal perception of male versus female gesture,” she says. For example, to elicit a loud, strong sound from musicians, “a male conductor can rely on a fierce glare, which would look macho,” she says. “But on a woman, that glare might come across as bitchy.” Alsop’s solution: “I worked hard at keeping eye contact and not averting my gaze when delivering a strong gesture.” She also practiced conducting in the mirror, painstakingly crafting gestures “that would convey [to the orchestra] the clarity and emotionality of every passage in the music,” she says. “I videotaped all of my rehearsals with the camera focused just on me and reviewed what worked and what did not work.”

The daughter of professional musicians, Alsop first encountered sexism at age nine, after her father took her to see Leonard Bernstein direct the New York Philharmonic in a Young People’s Concert. Witnessing the famed conductor’s passion for the music, Alsop, who had been studying the violin since she was a toddler, felt he had “reached out and grabbed my heart.”

“That’s what I want to be!” she announced to her delighted parents. But when she confided this ambition to her violin teacher, the response—“Girls don’t do that”—left her devastated.
Alsop told her mother what had happened, and Ruth Alsop, furious, replied that her daughter could be anything she wanted to be. The next morning, Marin found a long wooden box waiting for her at the breakfast table.

It was full of batons.

First published in the October 2013 issue

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