&ldquoAs Alsop faced the cellos and drew from them the most tremendously shaped phrases with every inflection of her baton, you were aware of being in the presence of greatness.&rdquo
21st August 2013

The last night of the men only club

For the first time in history, a woman will lead us through the annual burst of Land of Hope and Glory at the Last Night of the Proms. Can you believe men have kept this honour to themselves for 118 years? If you work in classical music, the answer is probably yes. It is a world that is notoriously duff when it comes to women at the top.

Marin Alsop, a 56-year-old New Yorker, is changing that. “First this, first that . . . first Diet Coke of the day,” she says, chugging down a breakfast drink in a cavernous side room at the Royal Albert Hall. The conductor — whose self-confidence is offset by appealing goofiness — is in London to perform Brahms’s German Requiem at Prom 47. It is Prom 75 on September 7, however, at which she will conduct Nigel Kennedy and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, that really has everyone excited.

“I know what a big deal Last Night is, but I wasn’t tracking this ‘first woman’ thing,” she says in her East Coast intelligentsia accent. “When Roger said, ‘By the way, I think it will be a historic evening’, my response was: ‘Why?’” She pauses, then laughs, as if to say, “Nothing very historic about me.”

The paucity of women on the podium at top venues is a mystery, as about half the members of British orchestras are women, and string sections often boast a female majority. Likewise, women dominate as star soloists. In an era obsessed with looks, some argue they have the gender advantage. So why are so few calling the shots?

Alsop thinks the biggest obstacle is precedence. She remembers studying under Leonard Bernstein — a fan of hers — in the late 1980s. “I’d been conducting and he had been sitting in the audience and I could tell something was really bugging him. I said, ‘Is everything OK, maestro?’ He said, ‘I just don’t get it. When I close my eyes I can’t tell you’re a woman.’”

“I said, ‘If you’re more comfortable with your eyes closed, I’m good. Just keep teaching me,’” she says, evenly. “I understood. He came from a generation where that was not something women did. Yet here I was, and he couldn’t quite get it.”

Alsop appears to have been a natural since year dot. Born in 1956, the only daughter of a cellist and violinist, she was at the piano by two. “I was too young,” she says, a touch sadly. What age would you suggest? “Three?” she says, only half joking. Her parents worked for the New York City Ballet Orchestra, and life was monomaniacal. Home life “was chamber music all day and all night”.

At nine, her father took her to see Bernstein conduct. When she saw his suave polo-neck and how he chatted to the audience, she knew it was the job for her. You never rebelled? “Oh no, I did.” By which she means she went to Yale at 16. Her parents would have preferred her to go to a conservatoire. Eventually she transferred to the Juilliard School to study music. “I always knew I would. I was just torturing my parents.” By enrolling at an Ivy League university? She shrugs. “You have to grow up in a musician family to understand.”

Back on home turf, her ascent was swift. She skipped from Juilliard to a lucrative freelance career — playing with the New York Philharmonic one day, Billy Joel the next. This, in effect, was the industry ceiling for women. “I applied three times for the conductors course at Juilliard and didn’t get in.” Because of being a woman? “I’m not sure,” she says. “I have a great relationship with Juilliard now, but at that time they were pretty square. I was not only a woman, I was kind of wacky. I remember I made it all the way to the finals of the audition and I made some joke and the musicians were laughing and clapping, and they threw me out.”

Instead, she was a dogged self-starter, ploughing her earnings from playing into founding an orchestra and music festival. She began to guest-conduct, before landing the top job at the Colorado Symphony, Denver, then moved to Baltimore in 2007. There was nearly a walkout when she got the job.

Yet there might be something to be said for a woman’s touch in one part of her job: managing the egos and worries of musicians. When she took over at Baltimore she realised the near-revolt was because nobody had been talking to the musicians. “Every few months, I’ll try to take five minutes at the end of rehearsal to tell them what I’m thinking and it is still shocking to them.”

So you are not the cliché of the savage maestro, snatching a violin out of a quivering player’s hand, playing it perfectly and throwing it back at them? “I’ve actually seen that happen,” she says, although she swears it is not her style. “You have to be compassionately authoritative, willing to make hard decisions and stick by them.”

She says self-doubts can still creep in but, “I always leave them in the hotel bedroom.” Ultimately, it seems, whether you hack it boils down to personality. “I didn’t go into this job trying to be liked, because I knew that was impossible. For me, personally, I’d rather have both, but if I had to choose, I’d rather be respected than liked.”


Please note this is only an excerpt. To read the full interview please visit the Sunday Times website.