&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
25th September 2013

The Last Night of the Proms 2013 by Marin Alsop

Well, that was quite a night…

After months of planning, The Last Night of the Proms finally arrived. I was going to conduct classical music’s biggest party of the year and, as news reports across the world made clear, become the first woman to conduct this august occasion.

Often events that are looked forward to for so long and that carry such expectations can be disappointing with a sense of anti-climax about them once they’ve passed. But for once the actual experience surpassed all that I’d hoped it would be.

One of the main reasons why I’m still elated from last week’s “Last Night” is the incredible energy and engagement of audience. I think the most overlooked facet of the live classical music experience is the role that the audience plays. Their concentration and involvement are a crucial element in the success, or failure, of what the players are doing on stage.

What makes the Proms so utterly unique, and not just the Last Night, is their audiences, especially the “prommers” who stand in line (often overnight) and then stand throughout the concerts and without air-conditioning in the hall! Their concentration and palpable involvement in what the musicians on stage are doing make it an experience like no other. For The Last Night they throw caution to the wind and a very particular side of English humor comes out that’s surely not seen anywhere else.

The first part of the concert follows a more traditional concert format with minimal flag waving or audience participation. But for the second half, well, what can I say? As I walked out onto the stage I was faced with hundreds of flags from many nations, including the Stars and Stripes, and a podium decorated with flags, balloons and streamers. Their intention to party couldn’t have been clearer and so the real festivities began. The support, warmth and enthusiasm was way more than I expected and deeply moving for me.

Much has been made of me being the first woman to conduct the Last Night and I’m aware that for many people this had real resonance as a “glass ceiling”-breaking moment. In all the many interviews I did before the Last Night I acknowledged this but always made it clear that I find it shocking that in 2013 there are still firsts for women and that we should use the fuss around the Last Night to really examine our assumptions concerning women and our ever changing roles across the world.

Let’s not fall into the trap of getting complacent about things getting better for all women because they simply are not. When a girl can be shot in Pakistan for going to school, when women are arrested after being raped in Saudi Arabia and when the number of rapes in African war zones reaches numbers that are impossible to calculate, we need to keep busy fighting injustice wherever it occurs.

So, while a huge amount of attention in the press had focused on my being the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, I was determined that my speech to the audience that night should also focus on why music matters and how it can transform lives.

Nothing makes me angrier than when I hear music described as some sort of relaxing leisure activity for a privileged few. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Arts can transform lives and my work with children in Baltimore through my OrchKids program and with the Sao Paulo Symphony has made a clear difference to their lives. Just a quick look at their improved test scores and the way they carry themselves is proof that music and music-making can clearly make a tangible difference to people. I believe passionately that music has the power to transform lives and societies.

Having the support we need is critical to our success and sense of self. In my speech I mentioned my parents who were both professional musicians – my mother was a cellist, my father a violinist – and, even if they were perhaps a bit surprised at my announcement aged nine that I would be a conductor, they always supported me in pursuing my dreams. By growing up in a household full of music they gave me something that did far more than provide me a career. They gave me a passion and a cause greater than myself.

So while it may have been tiring and sometimes frustrating to be constantly asked what it was like being the first women to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, it is all worthwhile if it inspired young women to realize that they, too, should follow their passion, should aim high and not let any barriers stand in their way, and should work tirelessly to fulfill their potential. If that hits home for someone out there then it will indeed have been an evening to celebrate what it feels like to be a woman conductor.

Marin Alsop for the huffington post