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

Still, she didn’tget many opportunities to wield those batons until after she earned her master’s degree in violin from Juilliard. Working as a freelance violinist but still cherishing dreams of becoming a conductor, she persuaded former Juilliard classmates to let her conduct them in exchange for beer and pizza. (“You can’t practice conducting unless you have an orchestra or invite 40 musicians over to dinner every night,” notes Alsop.) She also began to study with the renowned conductor and music teacher Carl Bamberger, and in 1984 she formed her own orchestra, the Concordia, shelling out $10,000 to put on its first concert in New York City’s Symphony Space. Raising her profile as well as her skill level landed her a fellowship to study under her childhood idol at Tanglewood. “Bernstein taught me about music,” Alsop recalls, “but we also talked about politics and religion and literature and poetry and theater and everything.” There followed a long, gradual climb through the ranks as music director of smaller orchestras and as guest conductor with world-class symphonies. “Pound and pound and pound at the front door,” she recently advised students at a George Washington University forum on creative leadership, “and while no one’s looking, just walk around the side and climb in the window. That’s sort of what I did.”

A year after winning the Bernstein fellowship, Alsop returned to Tanglewood, where she met her life partner, Kristin Jurkscheit, a French horn player. For a while, Alsop bounced around as a guest conductor, but eventually she landed in Denver as music director of the Colorado Symphony, where Jurkscheit had tenure. In 2003 the couple became parents of a son, Auden. “We didn’t plan on having children, but Kristin’s parents died when she was in her thirties, and she started longing for a sense of continuity, of connection, of making a contribution to the world that wasn’t career related,” Alsop says. Kristin conceived their son through a donor who is known to them.

Two years after Auden was born, the Baltimore Symphony offered Alsop the position of music director. The orchestra members, per contract, were entitled to have a voice in the search for a new director, but the board chose Alsop without consulting the committee of musicians that represented the orchestra, which immediately rebelled. The musicians wanted to consider other conductors they were scheduled to work with, and demanded that the search continue. The humiliating showdown played out in national headlines. The Washington Post quoted a leaked letter in which a board member sympathetic to the players raised questions about Alsop’s “technical limitations” and “lack of depth as a musician” while making no mention of her many achievements and glowing reviews. The MacArthur Foundation was in fact rewarding her genius at the same time the BSO was disputing it.

Alsop recalls that friends and colleagues advised her to run as fast as she could “away from these crazy people.” She describes what should have been a joyful occasion—the barrier-breaking achievement of a lifetime—with a single, curt word: “ruined.” Alsop had guest-conducted at the BSO several times and had never sensed any hostility. But that didn’t lessen the pain. “It felt like it could have been the end of my career. But to be the first woman appointed to head a full-time American orchestra and then to chicken out and walk away? Not an option for me.” She asked to meet with the orchestra before deciding her own fate.

First published in the October 2013 issue

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