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

The mission closest to Alsop’s heart, however, is the most ambitious of them all: OrchKids, the children’s music program she founded with the goal of providing instruments, lessons, mentors and performance opportunities to youth in Baltimore’s low-income neighborhoods. Music, Alsop believes, not only can create and strengthen community but also can instill the kind of focus and self--discipline that will set up children for success, whether they become clarinetists or construction workers. But in her nesting-doll fashion of revealing motive, Alsop allows that her vision for OrchKids goes beyond replacing Beyoncé with Beethoven: The program is her artistic incubator for racial equality. She laments the fact that in the predominantly African-American city of Baltimore, there is only one African American in the symphony. On the rare occasion when a seat becomes available, she says, “I don’t see as many Hispanic and -African-American musicians in the final rounds of auditions as I’d like.”The same lack of diversity occurs in symphonies across the U.S.

She knows of one reason. “To become a classical performer, you have to start when you’re three years old,” says Alsop, who put a violin in Auden’s hands at that age. “Kids in poorer communities don’t have access to instruments and teachers.” In Alsop’s view, that kind of exclusion is squandering both potential talent and potential supporters.

Some of her fears were confirmed when OrchKids was about to launch and notices were sent to parents inviting them to enroll their children. No one showed up, recalls Dan Trahey, whom Alsop recruited as director of OrchKids’ artistic program development. “They all thought I was an undercover cop,” he recalls. Only when the parents learned that free after-school supervision, academic tutoring and a hot meal would be provided along with the flutes and cellos did enrollment step up.

“Today more than 700 children participate,” says Trahey. “The oldest ones attend the symphony 10 to 15 times a year. OrchKids played with the BSO three times last year. They meet guest artists from around the world. They give preconcert performances for the symphony. These kids know the classical repertoire, they know instruments, they know players. Marin is creating a future audience for the BSO that will experience classical music at a higher level.” She has also organized a choir for the parents. “She’s trying to create social change through music,” explains Marvine, who has played solo English horn with the BSO since 2000.

Alsop is busy on all these fronts, leading her to wonder sometimes just how far she can push herself. Staying relevant as a conductor requires frequent travel when she’s not in season in Baltimore or Brazil, where she’s principal conductor of the São Paolo Symphony. She has recorded more than 70 albums to date, and the full schedule makes every moment she snatches with her family precious. Alsop and Jurkscheit managed a commuter relationship for three years, but the two now live in Baltimore, where Jurkscheit teaches while directing a music entrepreneurship program at the University of Maryland.

One afternoon this spring, Alsop, Jurkscheit and Auden meet up for pizza after a Sunday-matinee concert. Alsop quickly comes off her post-performance high, stroking her sleepy son’s head while he dozes in her lap. She and Auden, now nine, busk Vivaldi on the violin on the streets of Santa Cruz during California’s annual Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, which she directs. “But his real passion is rock climbing,” Alsop says proudly. “He’s in a national rock-climbing competition.”

First published in the October 2013 issue

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