Pathbreaking Conductor Marin Alsop on Art, Community & Leadership: the IPR Interview

Mar 29, 2018

Marin Alsop conducting the Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra, of which she is Principal Conductor and Music Director - the first woman to hold those posts.
Credit Wikipedia Creative Commons

She doesn't mind being asked about women in conducting - I'm glad I did! But her work has made the term "woman conductor" obsolete.

Marin Alsop was the first woman to conduct many of the world's great orchestras, and the first woman music director of a major American orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony. She will soon become the Vienna Radio Symphony's first woman chief. I could continue her list of firsts for pages, but to give it context, Jessica Duchen writes that Alsop is "the only female conductor who is virtually a household name."

Conducting had been music's most shatterproof glass ceiling; Alsop broke through it with calm, undaunted persistence.  Her example can inspire men (me, for one) as well as women. Stacks of rejections didn't stop her, and platoons of doubters didn't discourage her. But her surmounting the gender barrier can distract us from another achievement: she is now thought of not as a "woman conductor" but as simply a great conductor. It's remarkable that she's the first woman to record both the Brahms and Dvorak symphony cycles, but even more notable is that a not-easily impressed critic wrote, "In the entire history of the [Brahms Third] on disc, there have been perhaps seven or eight truly great performances... to this select list, add Alsop." A scoop: Alsop tells me in our interview - audio below - that she is planning to record the Beethoven cycle next. She'll be the first woman to record it, but that's not why I'm so excited. Instead, it's because she has already demonstrated greatness as a Beethoven conductor.

Alsop is at the vanguard of much of what is exciting in classical music today.  Alex Ross writes that she "has a knack for charming both players and audiences into enjoying [new] music that they think they won't like." And, as we discuss at the start of the interview, she wants the first words we associate with orchestras to be "inclusion" and "access." Nobody has done more to make it so. My favorite example: she inspired the Baltimore players to join her in creating a program to mentor children from Baltimore's low-income neighborhoods. The program, called OrchKids, has grown from 30 participants to 3,000 year-round. She won buy-in from the musicians partly by listening carefully to their concerns, and partly by offering to fund the pilot herself using her MacArthur prize money. (Another first: she is the only conductor ever to win a MacArthur Fellowship.) 

 

Alsop is also a long-time regular on Scott Simon's Weekend Edition in an outstanding series called Marin on Music, and she told me about her upcoming collaborations both with Scott and with Peter Sagal. I can add that interviewing her was one of the high points of MY radio career!

 

Credit Katherine Perkins, Iowa Public Radio
 

Alsop flies over 100,000 miles a year, and in the next month will conduct in Europe, South America, and the US. She was in Iowa City for the afternoon to give a free public lecture for the "Creative Matters" series - it will be at the Voxman Music Building at 5:30. (We'll post a link to the video when it becomes available.) When she stopped by our studio to chat, one topic we discussed was the mentorship of Leonard Bernstein. The new box set of her complete recordings has been called "as fine as Bernstein's own, and sometimes even better .. the orchestras play wonderfully, the sonics are terrific, but most importantly, Alsop's identification with the idiom is so compelling... " She autographed it for us! (My thanks to my colleague Katherine Perkins for asking for me, AND for taking the picture!)