First Lady of the Last Night of the Proms
Marin Alsop is a first. The baggage that accompanies this fact is such that she has had to adapt her answer to questions about it over the years. Initially a source of irritation and defiance, then, later, simply acceptance. Now she sees being asked about being one of the world’s most high-profile women conductors as an opportunity.
She was the first woman to hold a position within a major American orchestra; the first conductor to receive the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (dubbed the “genius grant”) and next month, Alsop will add another first by taking to the podium in London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall, where she will conduct The Last Night of the Proms and history will be made again.
It has taken just 118 years for a woman to follow in the footsteps of the renowned conductors Sir Henry Wood, Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sir Colin Davis, performing the likes of Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory. “You need a woman every 100 years or so, right?” Alsop says wryly. “But,” she adds seriously, “I was surprised there hadn’t been a woman conducting it before.”
According to Roger Wright, the BBC Proms director and Radio 3′s controller, the reason for this is what he calls “the weight of history”.
Before the gala Last Night on 7 September, Alsop was also preparing when we met for last night’s performance of Brahms’s A German Requiem with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the latest of many Proms appearances since her debut in 2003. Yet, she admits to still struggling when she compares herself to the stereotypical conductor. “My archetypal image of a maestro doesn’t look like me,” she says. “Maybe it’s changing, but I think we still picture an older, white man – kind of salt and pepper hair with a bow tie and an accent. So the deck is almost certainly stacked against women.”
She adds that the first woman didn’t play in a major US professional orchestra until 1966. Evelyn Rothwell was one of the first women to play in the London Symphony Orchestra, though she was regarded as an outsider by her male colleagues. It wasn’t until 1975 that Renata Scheffel-Stein was elected a member of the LSO.
Alsop readily admits her success has brought conflicting emotions. By being the Last Night’s first female conductor and talking about it at every opportunity, she could be seen as a flag-bearer, which could overshadow her work. Yet, not discuss it at all and she risks accusations of not doing enough to further gender equality.
“In the case of the Proms, it’s not me bringing it up, it’s just the facts, so it is actually a great opportunity for me to talk about the issue without the usual balancing act of ‘should I address this, shouldn’t I address this’,” she says.
“You do feel awkward about it, especially as gender is something I have nothing to do with, it’s just who you are – a matter of fate. But I do think this kind of spotlight appearance, where everyone wants to discuss being the ‘first woman’, opens up an opportunity to have a broad discussion about equality.”
The 56-year-old New Yorker, after a chance encounter with Leonard Bernstein, decided upon this most niche of careers there and then – aged nine.
“I had a poster of the Beatles on my bedroom wall, but a bigger poster of Bernstein,” she says. The composer of West Side Story and Candide would later become her mentor just three years before his death. Her parents, professional musicians, allowed her to thrive in a world of possibility. After a violin teacher told her that girls did not become conductors, her father gave her a box of batons. “It was his way of saying, you can do anything you want – we’ll support you.”
It’s this benevolence – and a determination never to accept No for an answer – that has resulted in her conducting some of the world’s most prestigious orchestras.
Unable to practise alone, Alsop corralled friends into performing so she could conduct them: “Once I had a saxophone player and a guitar – a ridiculous combination of things.”
After briefly studying maths at Yale (against her parents’ wishes, which, she says, was her way of rebelling) she transferred to the celebrated Juilliard conservatory where she earned a master’s degree in violin. In 1981, she founded the ensemble String Fever and in 1989 at the Tanglewood Music Centre she met her hero and mentor, Bernstein. “There’s a new book out about him called Dinner with Lenny and in it the author asked Bernstein who was going to be a great conductor and he spoke only about me, which was really touching,” she says.
“You’re never sure with someone of that stature about where you stand, but I always felt he had this belief in me and this encouragement which was mostly to be myself.”
PAUL BIGNELL, THE INDEPENDENT (UK)
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