Marin Alsop: The Conductor

Marin Alsop is a woman of firsts. Her unbreakable will to bring her goals to fruition made her the first woman to ever conduct a major American orchestra – and that was just the beginning.

In a world where it is still more likely for a woman to be a head of state than being a conductor of a major American orchestra, Alsop broke the glass ceiling and paved the way for many women to come.

In the biographical documentary “The Conductor”, Austrian director Bernadette Wegenstein follows Alsop’s career and skilfully depicts not only her professional but also personal life, giving the viewers an idea of the human behind one of the most well-known conductors of our times.

Born on October 16, 1956 in New York, Alsop grew up as the only child of two musicians, a cellist and a violinist, eking out a living, being rarely home but always supporting their child’s dreams. “I didn’t grow up with many of the advantages that typically define privilege. But I grew up with the greatest advantage of all, in a household filled with music and filled with possibility”, Alsop once acknowledged her parents in a speech.

Her first instrument was the piano, but – as she states in the documentary – she simply hated it and “retired from it” at the age of six: “For every child there is a right instrument”, she adds. Hers was the violin, which she started to adore and later studied at Juilliard’s Pre-College Division.

How it all began

It was at one of his Young People’s Concerts when Alsop, at the age of nine, saw famed Leonard Bernstein conducting for the first time. Impressed by his charisma and the joy he obviously experienced, she decided to become a conductor herself.  Informing her violin teacher about her intentions, what she got as a response was that “girls couldn’t do that”. This kind of sentiment turned out to be a recurrent one – one that marked her career path but ultimately never had the power to divert her from her course.   

In 1972, she entered the prestigious Yale University but three years later, transferred back to Juilliard School, where she earned her Master’s degree in violin in 1978. The accuracy of classical music felt limiting to her at times, which was one of the reasons she founded the string ensemble “String Fever” in 1981, for which she gathered mostly classical trained, all-female musician friends and made them play swing music. “And I had no idea what swing music was”, she laughs.

When she got rejected for Jilliard’s conducting program and a teacher told her – once again – that she would never conduct, she overcame the rejection by starting her own orchestra, specializing in 20th-century American music.

When I close my eyes, I can’t tell that you are a woman

Leonard Bernstein to Marin Alsop

As a result of her dedication, will power and probably a bit of fate, in 1989, she met the person who inspired her to become a conductor in the first place and who would later become her personal mentor and teacher: Leonard Bernstein.

For the documentary, Wegenstein carefully assembled archival footage of Bernstein and Alsop, underlining the special musical and personal relationship between the two, with one controversial scene standing out. When Alsop finished conducting a piece, Bernstein says to her: “When I close my eyes, I can’t tell that you are a woman”.

In the Q&A that followed the Austrian premiere of the film on March 7, Alsop offered her interpretation of the quote: “Being around Bernstein was crazy, it was like being with Mick Jagger in a way, with paparazzi and film crews. […]He liked to say things that were shocking, just to get some action going. When you are that kind of celebrity, sometimes you just want to stir the pot to see what you can do. He would say some really funny things to me sometimes. When he said this line, it was indeed unusual for him. He usually was very affectionate, jumping on me after conducting – that was more like him. But this one time he wasn’t, he was really lost in thought, really trying to work this out for himself. He came from a generation that didn’t consider that women would be capable of doing these things, but nevertheless, he gave women their first chance and he was torn about this, so I really didn’t think that it was an insult when he said it to me. I thought it was actually a very revealing thing, he was saying to me ,I was trying to work this out, because I believe in you, you are a conductor and I don’t hear any difference, so why is there a resistance?’ That’s how I interpreted it, but maybe I was wrong and maybe I should have been mad”, she added, laughing.

(c) 1. Adriane White, 2. and 3. Walter Scott, 4. Mariana Garcia, 5. Grant Leighton, 6. Platon

First engagements

In 1988, she started to serve as associate conductor of the Richmond Symphony (until 1990), in 1989 she became music director of the Eugene Symphony in Oregon (until 1996) and Creative Conductor Chair for the St. Louis Symphony (1994 until 1996).

Between 1992 and 2016, she was music director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, from 1993 until 2005, she served as first principal conductor and then music director of the Colorado Symphony.

Wanting to pass on her skills and experience, in 2002, she started the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, which aims to foster talented young women conductors with active mentorship.

Wegenstein’s documentary depicts the different facets of Alsop’s professional life – from world famous conductor to educator, mentor, founder, musician and role model for many – and hence, awardee of many prizes and fellowships: For example, Alsop was the first conductor ever to receive a MacArthur Fellowship (2005), commonly known as the “Genius Grant”, which is awarded annually to individuals showing “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction”.

In September 2007, Alsop was appointed the 12th music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO), making her the first female conductor of a major American orchestra. A remarkable success that, at the same time, turned out to be one of the most painful experiences of her life, when some of the musicians publicly objected her appointment as director. “What should have been an unalloyed joy turned into a nightmare”, she remembers. But, once more, she stood her ground, convincing the orchestra that she was the right choice and eventually holding her music directorship until 2021. “To me, the best cure for this kind of dysfunction was success. And, you know, I mean, happily, I’m the longest-serving music director of the Baltimore Symphony. So in the end, it worked out. So it was traumatic, but it led to an incredibly deep connection”, she explained in an interview with NPR. Evolving from this deep connection, in 2008, she founded “OrchKids”, a music program for underprivileged children in Baltimore that is striving to achieve social change and nurture promising futures: “OrchKids is one of my proudest achievements as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra”, she further stated.  

In 2012, she became principal conductor of the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, marking another first there. In “The Conductor”, Alsop admits that it wasn’t love at first sight when she came to Sao Paulo but the musicians quickly convinced her that it was all worthwhile: “They were hungry for hard work and had enormous potential”. She led the orchestra not only to Europe but also to China, making it the first South American orchestra ever to tour there. She also made history when she was – yet again – the first woman to conduct the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms in London in 2013.

I don’t like it, but I learn more from failure than I do from succeeding.

In 2014, she had her first encounter with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, when she conducted a concert with pieces of Bernstein and Mahler. Four years later, the Vienna RSO announced the appointment of Alsop as their next chief conductor – and once again, she was the first woman to hold this position. “The mission of the Orchestra to be innovative and to perform a wide range of repertoire really suits me. That’s the kind of musician I am and I love working with the Orchestra because they are quick, versatile and flexible”, she explained in an interview with Austrian Music Export on why she took on the position. Only a few weeks ago, her contract was extended for two more years.

A role model

Throughout the documentary, there are many outstanding scenes and quotes to reflect upon and that add yet another piece to the puzzle that is Alsop’s impressive character.

We need to give women the possibility to fail

Like when Alsop says that women would need to be given the possibility to fail. Asked to explain this statement in more detail, she said: “Always being the first woman meant an enormous pressure for me. If you only have one opportunity you are really trying to play it safe and do a great job. But I think this is not what being a great artist or a great musician is about. It is more about seeing how far you can push yourself and where the line is between taking a chance and really falling off the edge – because this is where excitement happens. If you only have one chance, you cannot really afford to do that, but we should really make some good mistakes. I don’t like it, but I learn more from failure than I do from succeeding.” 

What adds to the emotionality of the documentary is the fact that there are many aspects of Alsop’s career and life that many people – especially women – might have an easy time to identify with. At the same time, she provides guidance and inspiration for many – just like when she reminds us that the “worst four letter word is ‘can’t’” and that we have to believe in ourselves, follow our passion and never give up.

The Conductor”, directed by Bernadette Wegenstein, had its Austrian premiere – organized by the US Embassy in Vienna together with the International Human Rights Film Festival – on March 7, 2022 at Stadtkino Wien.

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Keyphoto: Adriane White