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.”

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.

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.

“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.

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.”

But if Alsop worries that she’s overcommitted, it hasn’t stopped her from continually finding new ways to create stronger connections between the BSO and its audience. In one ambitious 2009 move, she brought fans into the sacred fold of the symphony itself, offering up her orchestra as host to an intensive, weeklong music camp for grownups called the BSO Academy. For $1,850 each, participants get to sit with the orchestra during rehearsals, eat lunch with the musicians, attend master classes given by the players and perform with the BSO at a special concert. “There was some concern that the musicians didn’t want to be bothered with people coming in,” says Gerri Hall, a BSO subscriber and retired CEO who pulled her clarinet out of the closet, where it had been forgotten for 20 years, to join the camp. But the musicians ended up enjoying the presence of hundreds of awestruck groupies-in-residence, and many “campers” return year after year. “Marin’s on the cutting edge,” says Hall. “The fact that she’s letting some of us come along for the ride is special.”

Where the ride will take Alsop isn’t a question she agonizes over. She would rather analyze ways to build an audience for challenging contemporary composers or discuss Wagner’s loathsome personality versus his musical genius with her audience once the Valkyries have ridden off. Ask what’s next, and she raises her eyebrows, as if mulling the question. Ask what her dream life would look like, and the joy appears, that same smile the orchestra sees when the music is no longer coming from her but through her.

“Aren’t I living it now?” she asks.

Tamara Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, is a frequent contributor to More.

Next: Women Who Chipped Away at Classical Music's Glass Ceiling

Want MORE? Sign up for our weekly newsletter here!

First Published Fri, 2013-09-13 15:32

Find this story at: