Thinking outside the “female conductor” box
THE daughter of professional musicians, Marin Alsop, an American conductor and violinist, always knew she wanted to be a conductor. In 2013 Ms Alsop made history as the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms in London’s Royal Albert Hall, the pinnacle of the world’s classical music festivals with an audience of over 40m. This year she will again close it, on September 12th.
Ms Alsop spoke to The Economist about women in leadership, preparing for the Proms and the art of conducting.
You were the first woman conductor to close the Last Night of the Proms in 2013. Looking back, was that a liberating experience?
I am who I am, and I think that all the media attention surrounding the fact that no woman had ever conducted the Last Night of the Proms just brought into focus yet again how few opportunities there have been for women in this field, and how critical it is that we, as leaders, become mentors and create as many opportunities as possible for young women.
For me, it didn’t feel particularly liberating, but I felt very privileged to have the platform to be able to discuss the issue to a much broader public, because usually it is a very narrow audience. But the issues for women in leadership roles and equality for women—whether it is in pay, or in job positioning—I do think are very important issues. We are privileged to live in countries where women have many more opportunities. In many places women are so oppressed and extremely suppressed. So, it was liberating in the sense that we could have a dialogue about it, which felt very good.
Included in this year’s programme for the last night is the world premiere of Eleanor Alberga’s “Arise, Athena!”, a contemporary work. As a conductor, is premiering new work a nerve-wracking experience?
No. I always find it very exhilarating and exciting. It is only nerve-wracking if the piece has not been finished; when the ink is still wet and the musicians don’t have the parts. This is a five-minute piece so we are not talking about a huge symphonic work. I suggested Eleanor because I have heard a few works of hers before, and I think she represents so much about the future of women in our art. She is multicultural and brings a world music experience to the table.
The Last Night of the Proms often has a variety of classical and contemporary works. Is alternating between genres challenging?
I would say going from a standard repertoire to contemporary music is probably not as challenging as crossing over into a more popular repertoire like “The Sound of Music” or more jazz-orientated things. However, for me, it is very comfortable. I have a lot of years’ experience as a violinist, and I used to have a swing band, so I played a lot of jazz. So these are very comfortable roles. I think at the last night one of the most exciting components is how eclectic the repertoire is. There is something for everyone.
This year you will also be conducting an all-Brahms evening (Prom 62 on Tuesday, September 1st). Why is he a particular favorite?
I think for every classical musician there is a moment in our adolescence or even early adulthood where we suddenly have the understanding that music can have an emotional impact. For me, it was the music of Brahms that was that entry point. I remember hearing a chamber piece by Brahms and, for the first time, I understood that music could transport us and transcend everyday life, and that I could really express how I felt in music. So Brahms has a very special place in music for me.
Your conducting style is passionate without being flamboyant. What are the key elements needed to make a confident conductor?
I think you need genuineness and an authenticity. The conductor’s responsibility is first and foremost to the composer. I have to feel that if Brahms were sitting here and had just heard a performance he would say, “Oh yes, that is what I meant,” or “ I didn’t think about that, but when you did it I found it very convincing.” I have to try to be the messenger for the composer, to the orchestra and musicians first, and ultimately they [the performers] to the audience.
Why has it taken so long for women to be recognised as conductors?
I think we could ask the same question about prime ministers: Why aren’t there more women prime ministers in these ultimate leadership roles and why does it take so long? Basically, I think we are uncomfortable with women in these roles, plus we haven’t seen enough women in these roles to gravitate towards that. As human beings we tend to go towards things that make us comfortable, and it is a very slow process to get comfortable with a new paradigm.
For me, I just assumed there would be a lot of women doing this when I started out, and then after ten years I looked around and couldn’t see many. And the same after twenty years.
Do you see yourself as a trailblazer for women in the role of conductor?
I don’t know about a trailblazer, but certainly I would like to be out there helping other women forward.
Earlier this year your adopted city of Baltimore has been gripped by violence. How can an artist like yourself make a difference amidst poverty and unrest?
It was heartbreaking and terrifying, but not all that surprising. Shortly after I was appointed, I decided that we needed to be part of, not “a solution” necessarily, but rather “a creation” for young people. Music can be a refuge and a pathway, so we started an after-school programme with thirty children: to play instruments from 3pm to 6pm, which is a time frame the authorities say is most dangerous for children, and also [to] give childcare to the parents. By September we will have over a thousand children in the programme.