S6 E10 | CLIP

Marin Alsop: No Longer A One-Woman Show

Marin Alsop is one of the world’s foremost conductors. She got there by helping change the classical world.

AIRED: January 22, 2021 | 0:15:36

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When in 2005, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra,

announced that Marin Alsop,

will take over as the Music Director,

she faced immediate resistance,

but it didn't come from outside the Orchestra,

it came from the musicians,

who felt that they hadn't had enough say

in the process of her selection.

- You know what should have been

and was at least momentarily,

one of the happiest days of my life, you know,

when the Board, Chair of the Board at that time,

called and said,

'' Would you consider

taking on the Music Director position?''

I think that turned into probably the worst nightmare

of my entire life.

- [Jim] Back then, Alsop was that rarest of rare birds,

a top level female conductor.

Knowing the objections of the musicians

she would have to lead,

close colleagues urged her not to take the job.

Instead, she asked for 10 minutes alone with the Orchestra.

- So I walked out,

they were quite surprised to see me, I think,

but it was a private conversation.

I asked the Management and Board not to be there.

I outlined the areas that I thought I could be helpful in

to them, you know, not the least of which was conducting.

And I said, but I'm,

I won't sign this contract unless I have your support.

And so I started to walk off

and the Chair of the Committee said,

'' You have our support.''

And, you know, whether it was genuine or not in that moment,

it's hard to know,

but I needed to have that in order to begin.

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- [Jim] Now nearing the end of her tenure

as Music Director in Baltimore,

Alsop has accomplished much

in the Concert Hall and recording studio and beyond.

Under her leadership,

the Orchestra released their first recordings in years

and garnered the

'' Grammy Nomination for Best Classical Album in 2010'',

for recording of Leonard Bernstein's Mass.

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She also conducted the BSO,

on its first international tour in over a decade.

In addition, she founded '' ORCHkids,''

a year round, during and afterschool music program,

designed to foster social change.

Marin Alsop's journey into music began at a young age,

and she's never really known anything,

but a life rich in music.

Born in New York City in the 1950s,

both her parents were professional musicians,

playing with the New York City Ballet.

She knew she wanted to be a conductor from the age of nine,

and was the rare child

who had a Mini Orchestra at her disposal.

Her parents would invite their friends

and colleagues over to play,

so that their precautious daughter

would have someone to conduct.

All of this music so early in her life,

she says, was key in helping to form her character.

- I believe wholeheartedly in the musician,

as a kind of prototype for the human being,

because all of the skills you need,

are transferable to everything else.

So, for my parents, it was all about, you know,

'' First of all, the show must go on,

no matter what, we don't miss a concert.''

And we had some funny things, you know,

whether we had to abandon cars and run and, you know,

and of course, as a kid, I was dragged along to everything.

So, I saw them, and you go on stage and nothing,

you pretend nothing happened, you know,

it's a whole, it's all about this,

preserving the integrity of the music at all costs.

- I also watched them say,

'' Well, you know,

we really should have a concert hall on our house

and let's build it.''

So then the three of us are trying to build this, you know,

huge, enormous living room, which eventually we did.

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- Marin Alsop found an early cheerleader

in one of the 20th Centuries' most towering musical figures,

Leonard Bernstein.

She's one of the last conductors to learn firsthand

from the legendary composer, conductor and pianist,

who was a lifelong advocate

for the transformative power of music,

despite his rather traditional perspectives,

on who should be on the stage

and who should remain in the audience.

- From the minute I saw him conduct

and he turned around and spoke to the audience,

I felt engaged and gripped

and that he was speaking right to me

and I think he had that capacity,

also, even though there were thousands of people around him

and cameras and everything, you know,

if he was focused on you,

he was focused on you and everything else fell away.

When he would teach me, give me a lesson, even in public,

I didn't even notice anybody else was there.

- So not this time.

- And this one.

I think no, yes, I understand.

- Why not all the time?

- There was a funny moment where,

usually, when I finished conducting,

he would jump all over me

and jump on the podium and go crazy

and I finished and where is he?

And he was out sitting out in the audience

with his head down and I thought,

oh gosh, what happened?

And so I went out and I said,

Maestro, what's, is something wrong?

He said, '' I can't figure it out.

When I sit here and close my eyes,

I can't tell you're a woman.''

And I said, well, look,

if you want to close your eyes through my concerts,

I don't mind.

I mean, we had a good laugh about it,

but he told me that he was trying to figure it out.

He was trying to work out for himself,

why gender should be an inhibiting factor

or a determining factor

and he couldn't find any reason.

So, I think for me, it was actually extremely validating

because he was willing to think in a broader way, you know,

why aren't women accepted

because I can't hear any difference?

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- [Jim] By the time she took the reins in Baltimore,

Alsop was well qualified for the job,

having already had leadership roles

in orchestras in Colorado, Richmond, Virginia,

Eugene, Oregon, and St. Louis.

She had also guest conducted major orchestras across the U.S

and in Europe and Asia

and in 2005, she became the first conductor

to receive a so-called,'' MacArthur Genius Award.''

For Marin Alsop, music isn't something for a select few

to be appreciated from afar, it's something to share

and she's made that sharing

a cool part of her work in Baltimore.

- I was pretty shocked at the fact that

the city is an 80% African-American,

70, 80% African-American

and we had one African-American musician in the Orchestra.

And when you look across the orchestras

of the United States, the world, actually,

there are very few people of color in these orchestras

and why is that?

I mean, it's a fundamental reason

because kids don't have access to these instruments

and training when they're little, you know,

and you have to train from when you're very little,

it's like the Olympics,

in order to achieve that level of acumen.

So, I set out to try to change that for the future,

I never anticipated I would change it for my tenure,

but for the future of this city

and we started a program with 30 first graders,

in West Baltimore

and now we have 2000 kids playing musical instruments

but the most amazing part is that

the first graduates, they're now graduating in high school,

and they're going to music schools, they're being accepted.

I never dreamt that the first generation of this program,

would, some of them would turn into professional musicians,

they want to go into music, into education,

into music management and they're hugely successful.

The Orchestra has gained a reputation in the community

for caring and feeling somewhat relevant

to the community it inhabits.

And I think as we move forward, especially post COVID,

these qualities in arts institutions,

are going to be critical.

We have to be responsible to the communities we live in

and we have to represent them

and we have to figure out ways to open the doors wide

and share with everyone.

And I feel that at least I could make a start.

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- [Jim] The other major gap in the orchestral world,

was for a long time the gender divide.

Alsop has said that she thinks the title of

'' First Woman of Conducting,''

is a quote really silly epithet, yet it's not without merit.

In addition to being the '' First Female Music Director,''

of a major American Orchestra,

she was also the first woman to conduct

'' The Last Night of The Proms''

and in 2019, the ''First Female Chief Conductor

of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.''

And though she modestly rejects the title of

'' Trailblazer,'' today,

there are at least a dozen young women

following in her wake

and she wasn't just a role model,

almost 20 years ago, she started

'' The Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship,''

to train promising female conductors.

- We have to acknowledge

that women were really,

almost kept out of this profession.

I mean, not just conducting in that leadership role,

I mean, as leaders,

women have been really kept at the fringes

and only one or two let through now and then,

but that can't be because there were no talented women

as we see,

there were talented women

that weren't acknowledged,

and there are dozens and probably hundreds of women,

who missed that window of opportunity, you know,

I just want to say it out loud

because I feel for them and, you know,

I'm happy that young women are now getting opportunities

because well, it should have happened all along the way.

So, I don't think it's that suddenly,

all these talented women popped out of the earth,

I think they've been there all the time,

but suddenly, they were able to get a foot in the door

and maybe even now the door is open for them.

I was busy for 30 years saying,

where, why aren't there more women?

What can I do?

And it's a matter of creating opportunities

but suddenly, every orchestra wants a woman on the podium

because it's part of what they ''have to do''

and I'm thrilled because it is an opportunity now,

I just want to ensure that it's not just a trend

and they're not just doing it because they have to do it,

but because it's genuine and sustainable.

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- This will be one of Alsop's last season at the helm

in Baltimore,

she'll continue to occasionally conduct concerts,

as Music Director Laureate,

but she'll be spending a lot more time in Europe.

Still she says that she and her partner,

horn player, Kristin Jurkscheit,

will stay connected to Baltimore.

- I think the time is perfect to leave.

I believe that I'll be tied for the longest tenure

as Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony.

I think we're going to try to stay connected to the city

and to the community in ways that can be helpful

and supportive.

I'm devoted to the ORCHkids Program, you know,

that's really, I want to see it succeed

and reach more and more kids.

So, while we may relocate,

I think we'll continue to keep our roots here in Baltimore.

This kind of life,

where you keep having to build relationships

and then give them up as you move on.

I think at a certain point in life,

it doesn't feel quite worth it,

especially when you feel so connected to a place

and I really love this city.

- [Jim] But at the start of her final season

with the Baltimore Symphony,

the global pandemic effectively shut down

any chance of her being on stage with her musicians

one last time.

- I think it's a little bit ironic and bittersweet

that my last season probably won't exist.

You know, maybe I'm having a nice, relaxing moment week

but it's definitely not a diminuendo,

it's definitely taking my time

to ramp up to the new crescendo.

I think that music can connect people

where words can often antagonize them.

So, I look at it more as a vehicle rather than an end goal.

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Music is a great comfort, it brings joy, it brings memories,

it brings sadness, you know, when words escape us,

music can often be the consoler.

So, I feel privileged to live a life

with music as my vehicle.

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- [Jim] Alsop's new home away from home is Vienna,

a famously musically misogynistic city,

it's symphony orchestra,'' The Vienna Philharmonic,''

refused to hire female musicians

for the first 155 years of its existence

and only acquiesced to international pressure in 1997.

It wasn't conducted by a woman until almost a decade later,

when Simone Young, took the podium of the music for Ryan.

But Marin Alsop isn't much concerned

with past emissions in the Austrian capital,

she's here to do what she's always done,

change lives through music by speaking finely

and carrying a small stick.

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- [Announcer] ''Articulate,'' with Jim Cotter,

is made possible with generous funding

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

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