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

“I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever get over this,” she recalls telling the musicians in the closed-door meeting. “I don’t think you have a clue who I am.” Then she spelled out what she knew about the BSO: The group was $17 million in debt, its concert hall was often nearly half empty, and the orchestra hadn’t made any major recordings since 1999. “And I know I can change all of that,” Alsop declared, because she recognized in the BSO the same force that had driven her since the age of nine: “There was passion there.” She sketched her vision for the orchestra, then stated she would not sign her contract without the musicians’ support.

It’s not clear whether the orchestra members were chagrined by the bad publicity, moved by Alsop’s speech or resigned to the fact that they were not going to win this particular battle with management. But what happened next changed the path of Alsop’s professional life. Jane Marvine, then head of the players’ committee, spoke up: “You have 110 percent of our support.” When Alsop took the stage to conduct the BSO as its music director for the first time, in September 2007, the crowd gave her a standing ovation “before I had even done anything,” she says. They gave her another when the performance was over.

Since then, the number of donations has nearly doubled, and ticket sales have increased 13 percent. The BSO began recording again, garnering nominations for a Grammy, and dates at Carnegie Hall have become more frequent. A new board dipped into BSO endowments to wipe out the company’s debt, and Alsop herself has invested in the orchestra’s future, underwriting a music program for Baltimore’s poorest city schools with $100,000 of her MacArthur prize money. The orchestra recently renewed her contract through 2021. “We feed off each other’s energy and ideas,” says BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney, “and Marin has terrific charisma and energy.”

But Alsop sees her job as much broader than making the BSO a commercial and artistic success. She envisions a commitment to community far deeper than the usual free summer concert in a park. “My goal is to try to break down the impression of the orchestra as elitist, severe, austere, unapproachable,” she says. For example, she loves forensic-detective TV programs like CSI, so she hired a writer and collaborated with scientists and an acclaimed otolaryngologist, among others, to create musical mysteries. Actors perform these “symphonic stage shows,” as the BSO calls them, between musical pieces. They tell the story of the composer being featured and explore subjects such as Mozart’s death and Beethoven’s deafness.

Even Alsop’s professional wardrobe reflects her obsession with reinvention. The day she was fitted for her maestra’s jacket, before her first BSO concert, the tailor gasped when Alsop asked him if he could add some color to the staid black jacket and trousers conductors have always worn. “Won’t they get mad?” he fretted. But by Alsop’s calculation, if “they” don’t get mad, both she and the orchestra are doomed. Making history doesn’t interest her nearly as much as unraveling it. (Alsop’s suits now show flashes of crimson silk at the cuffs and collar.)

Yet when it comesto subverting sexism in the field of classical music, Alsop’s approach is both subtle and practical. In keeping with her sneak-in-through-the-window philosophy, she has launched a two-year conducting fellowship for women. Three of her graduates have already gone on to direct municipal orchestras of their own, in Hartford, Memphis and Reno.

First published in the October 2013 issue

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