MARIN ALSOP Q&A
How did you get started in music?
Many of my friends and colleagues were introduced to music in school, but I was born into music: my parents were both professional musicians and they could never imagine a life for their only child that was not filled with music!
They started me on piano when I was just 3 years old and then the violin when I was 5 or 6 years old. At 7 years old I was accepted to the Juilliard Pre-College Division on violin. For me, piano was the wrong instrument, but violin was just perfect, especially once I started playing in the orchestra. Being surrounded by all that sound and all those kids doing their best was an absolute inspiration for me. I was hooked!
How and when did you become interested in conducting?
My father took me to hear Leonard Bernstein conduct a Young People’s concert when I was 9 or 10 years old and that was it for me! When Bernstein turned around to speak to us, sharing his passion and insight into the music, I absolutely knew that I had to become a conductor. And I never changed my mind – even for one moment!
What do you think is the conductor’s relationship with the audience?
My biggest responsibility is to be the messenger of the composer. It is my responsibility to understand the composer’s motivation and intention and convey that to the audience through the voices of the musicians.
What is OrchKids and what inspired you to create it?
OrchKids is a year-round, during and after school, music program designed to create social change and nurture promising futures for youth in Baltimore City neighborhoods.
When I became Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony in 2007 I started thinking about how we can enable our orchestras to mirror the diversity of our communities. I wanted to reach out to that broader community and share my own experience as a child growing up learning to play an instrument.
Tell us about how it’s grown
In 2008 I started OrchKids with 30 first graders in West Baltimore.
Today we have 2,000 OrchKids and my goal is to reach 5,000 kids in the next few years. We have seen these kids grow and excel enormously and, with our original class of OrchKids graduating from high school, we now see them becoming leaders in their families and communities.
Let me tell you the story of one of those first OrchKids, Asia Palmer. Asia plays the flute and, along with two of her siblings, has been with OrchKids from the beginning. In 2013 Asia accepted the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program (NAHYP) Award from Michelle Obama at the White
House. This fall Asia began her college studies at the Hartt School of Music. She is majoring in flute and music management. She is the first in her family to attend college.
One of the most important aspects about OrchKids is the cycle of mentoring. After 5th grade, our older OrchKids return to teach and work with the younger kids. I fully expect to welcome Asia back frequently!
ON MUSIC EDUCATION
When you first began conducting, did you know that it would overlap as much as it does now with your initiatives in music education? How has your approach on music education and conducting changed over time?
I never really set out to be a “music educator” and have always been motivated by a strong desire to share my love for music with as many people as possible. I grew up with tremendous advantages because my parents gave me the gift of music and playing an instrument I believe that every child should have the opportunity to explore his/her creativity and have the access to the world of self-expression, possibility, and joy that shaped me as a child. After seeing the transformative effect music has had on the kinds in our OrchKids program, I am thrilled to call myself a “music educator”.
ON BEING THE FIRST
How did it feel to be the first woman to break so many barriers? (the first to conduct the Last Night of the BBC Proms; to head a major American orchestra, British orchestra, South American orchestra and now a Viennese orchestra)
I am exceedingly proud to have been “the first” on so many occasions, but always shocked and surprised that there are still “firsts” for women in the 21st century!
Thankfully, things are finally opening up for women, but it’s been decades in the making!
ON BEING THE FIRST WOMAN…
Journalists often ask me the “woman question” and it really gets tiring! How would I know why there aren’t more women on the podium? If you’re curious about the “woman question” have a look at this tongue in cheek video I made with Taki Fellow, Valentina Peleggi.
ON THE “WOMAN CONDUCTOR” ISSUE
Do women bring any different qualities to the podium?
This is a very difficult and far too general question for me to answer. The thing that I have noticed, however, is the fact that women in the audience seem to have a different concert-going experience when a woman is leading the orchestra.
Frequently women tell me that they feel empowered and can relate very directly with a woman conducting. And at the BSO’s opening gala a female journalist told me that the woman seated next to her, dressed is a formal gown, stood up and high-fived her at the end of the concert.
Now that is cool.
Do women conduct in a way that differs from how men conduct?
The wonderful thing about conducting is the unique individuality of every conductor. We are all so different. I respect and admire these differences.
That said, it is important, as women, to understand that our society interprets gestures from men and women very differently. So the same gesture from a man is interpreted differently form that gesture by a woman.
Have you ever experienced prejudice as a woman in a field dominated by men?
This question and all questions about discrimination are very difficult to answer because so much of anyone’s interpretation of events is based on personal attitude and personal experience.
Becoming a conductor is an extremely competitive ambition to begin with; but I would attribute some of my success to the fact that I never interpreted any rejections as gender-based, even if I could have done so! This enabled me to use each rejection as an opportunity to improve myself by working harder, listening to criticism and developing even more perseverance!
I personally feel that accepting the role of powerless victim can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and I am unwilling to even entertain that concept!
Do you feel that there are more opportunities now for female conductors than say when you started?
There are certainly more women going into the field these days. When I teach it’s generally 50/50 ratio of men to women and I don’t think women hesitate as much to consider a career as a conductor these days. As far as opportunities, there are more now than ever before, but we must remain vigilant in equalizing the landscape for women and minorities!
What advice do you give to younger female colleagues? What mistakes would you tell them to avoid?
NEVER apologize and NEVER interpret rejection as gender bias. Use every rejection to better yourself. There is something to gain from every experience. And allow yourself the opportunity to FAIL!!
ON THE TAKI CONCORDIA CONDUCTING FELLOWSHIP
When I started conducting professionally over 30 years ago, I naively assumed there would be more and more women entering the field but, 5 years passed, then 10, then 15 and I thought: “Why aren’t there more women?” and “if I don’t do something to change this landscape, who will?”
In 2002 I started the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship to create opportunities for talented young women conductors. I named the fellowship after my non-musical mentor, Tomio Taki, who helped me start my very first orchestra, Concordia, in 1984. Mr. Taki believed in me and wanted to be part of enabling a woman to break the glass ceiling in the conducting world. This fellowship was established in his honor and to thank him for his life-changing support.
To date (2019) we have had 18 awardees and they are all doing extremely well. An unexpected and wonderful result of the Taki Fellowship is the community of women conductors that has been created. These gifted women have each other as resources, to act as sounding boards, offer advice and be a support system.
ON BEING MUSIC DIRECTOR OF THE BALTIMORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
What interested you about Baltimore Symphony?
The main draw for me was the quality of this orchestra and what I saw as enormous potential – artistically, organizationally and in the community. The optimal working environment is one where change and innovation are genuinely embraced.
The BSO is the perfect partner. The main issues facing the orchestra when I took on the job – a large debt, declining ticket sales, and the fact that the orchestra hadn’t made any recordings in 10 years – have all been addressed in substantive ways even before my first season started. Now we are able to take a longer view and create a realistic 3-5 year plan with a focus on the Baltimore community, and this is truly exciting!
Baltimore is a city on the move. It is the last affordable east coast city and the neighborhoods are undergoing dramatic changes, yet it maintains its small-town warmth. I am originally from New York City, so coming back to the east coast – to Baltimore – feels like returning home.
ON BEING MUSIC DIRECTOR OF THE SÃO PAULO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
When I went to Brazil in 2010 to guest conduct the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, I never dreamed that I would someday call Brazil my second home – I had never even been to South America! But that is exactly what happened and I had a fantastic time as Music Director of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, a vibrant, committed, passionate organization that reflects the spirit of the amazing country itself. Besides working with these outstanding musicians, I discovered a new world of music – of all genres – that is vital and compelling, from Guarnieri and the lesser-known works of Villa-Lobos to traditional Frevos. Like my entire experience: totally unexpected and totally wonderful!
I am thrilled to have a title (Conductor of Honour) and a long term relationship with this wonderful orchestra!
ON THE APPOINTMENT AS CHIEF CONDUCTOR OF THE ORF VIENNA RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
I am absolutely thrilled to be Chief Conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Being put forth by the musicians for this role and feeling the warmth of their, and the city’s, welcome has been inspiring.
I am especially honored to follow in the footsteps of my great mentor and teacher, Leonard Bernstein, whose relationship with Vienna was so profound.
I’m looking forward to working with this excellent ensemble; exploring exciting new music together; and performing in the most beautiful and iconic halls in this city of classical music.
ON LEONARD BERNSTEIN
Leonard Bernstein, for me, was the greatest risk-taker in 20-century classical music.
Seeing him conduct when I was only nine years old at a New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concert convinced me that conducting was the only thing in the world that I wanted to do.
That alone would have been enough of a gift; but then at the age of 31, he took me under his wing and imparted to me the heart and soul of the craft.
What was it like to study with Bernstein?
I had two posters in my bedroom growing up: one of the Beatles and the other of Leonard Bernstein, so that gives you a sense of where he rated with me!
Bernstein was my hero and it was incredible that and he exceeded all my expectations. He was generous, demanding, validating, challenging and, above all, very loving. We all had to be on our toes at every moment, but every moment was filled with brilliance.
What is the most important thing you learned from Bernstein?
I learned many things from Bernstein, and not just about music. I so admired the kind of citizen of the world he was and, whether I agreed with him or not, the way he stood up for the causes he believed in.
Bernstein’s total engagement with the music, the orchestra and with us, the audience, was beyond thrilling. I fell in love with him on the spot and adored his rebellious embracing of every genre of music.
Bernstein taught me that the conductor’s role, first and foremost, is to be the messenger of the composer. Every piece has a narrative and it is our job, as conductors, to convey that story with total commitment.
As with all true mentors, Bernstein taught me much more than a craft. He showed me–and the world–the enormous power of music and how important it is to share it with as much of humanity as is possible. He showed us that classical music is a powerful force that can transform lives as well as inspire and move people and he lived by those principles.
ON HER GREATEST INFLUENCES
Who are your greatest influences–musically or personally?
My parents, first and foremost. They were both professional musicians — my father was concertmaster of the NYCBallet for 30 years and my mother was a cellist with that orchestra, but that only begins to scratch the surface of their enormous talents. My father also played sax, flute, clarinet, viola, and whistles on many recordings and television commercials. And in his spare time, he restored old house, built new ones and collected and dealt in antiques!
To give you a small example, my father decided to build a concert hall in their back yard in Saratoga Springs, NY so that they could invite 300 friends over every Sunday in the summers and perform classical and jazz concerts for them all!
My mother, in addition to being a wonderful cellist, played piano beautifully and was a skilled potter and weaver. She made all of my dishes and scarves for everyone I know! She also participated in the restoration activities and ran an antique shop for many years.
My next greatest hero was Leonard Bernstein who inspired me to become a conductor and later became my mentor and teacher and more than a hero could ever be!
ON HER EXPERIENCE AS AN INSTRUMENTALIST
Do you play an instrument?
I am a violinist and I graduated from Juilliard with my Masters degree in violin performance. I also played some jazz and had a swing band called String Fever.
ON STRING FEVER
In addition to being concertmaster of the NYC Ballet, my father, Lamar Alsop, played sax and clarinet in many big bands, so I grew up hearing jazz as well as classical music. When I was finishing up at Juilliard, I started to get super interested in jazz and started an all-woman string swing band called “String Fever”. 6 violins, 3 violas, 3 celli, bass, and drums!
We started by playing every Thursday at Mikell’s on Columbus Avenue and eventually recorded with many major pop stars such as Billy Joel and Paul Simon.
We played together for 20 years and still have fantastic reunions!
ON MUSIC AND YOUNG PEOPLE
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians and conductors:
My best advice is to pursue that which you are passionate about and pure and simply never give up! If the front door is locked to you, go around the side and sneak in a window!!
ON WORKING WITH AMATEUR MUSICIANS
For me it’s incredibly important to support amateur musicians because music is a way to connect, communicate, transcend barriers, transcend differences and perhaps it’s a way to promote tolerance and peace in a world that desperately needs it.
In your bio, you say that “music has the power to change lives”. What do you mean exactly?
By providing a strong foundation and developing the whole individual, we can position students for lifelong success – success not limited to music, but in all areas of their lives.
Every one of us is born hot-wired to experience emotional reactions to music. Music bypasses words and appeals directly to our emotions. Yet each one of us can experience the same music is uniquely different ways. Music is entirely non-judgmental and transcends all barriers.
ON THE FUTURE OF CLASSICAL MUSIC
Many artistic directors and music managers are worried about the future of the classical music industry. Is there any panacea for the renovation of the audiences, the crisis of the recording industry and the development of contemporary composers?
This is a cyclical worry that I hope we can overcome once again, but this time it does require a great deal of self-assessment and willingness to look at potential change in order to adapt to a very quickly changing society. How can we build bridges for listeners to access and feel connected to this great music? How can we adapt our concert presentations to engage and inspire in ways that connect with our new listeners whilst not alienating our core audiences? How can we use technology to further these goals? All major questions that orchestras are grappling with today.
ON BEING AN AMBASSADOR FOR CLASSICAL MUSIC
It is a great privilege to act as an ambassador for classical music. Music has the transformative power to heal and unite people without reservation or prejudice.
For me, music is a vehicle to promote tolerance and understanding.
ON HER INTERESTS AND HOBBIES
Besides conducting and traveling, in your spare time, what sorts of pastimes do you enjoy?
I love keeping fit —running, elliptical machine, Pilates, weight lifting and hiking are my favorite forms of exercise.
I love languages — Portuguese has been fun, German is my current passion and Italian is next!
I also love to read, especially composers’ biographies.