National Press Club

BSO's Alsop Transforms Symphony and Makes Gender History, Too

November 18, 2008 | By Richard Lee

Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and first woman to have that job with a major American orchestra, spoke humorously and passionately to her NPC Luncheon audience Monday about the “transformational power” of music in her life.

"My parents were both professional musicians,” she said. “And because of that, my world was defined, colored and transformed by music. When I was a 9-year-old girl living in New York City, my father took me to a Young Peoples Concert at the New York Philharmonic. That was a day I will never forget because I fell under the spell of Leonard Bernstein, and my life was changed forever. I thought, you know, 'I could do that.'

"I thought, 'I will do that. I am going to do that.' And that day I decided I would be a conductor. And I never changed my mind.”

Alsop was educated at Yale and Juilliard. She played the piano at 2, but the violin was more to her liking.

“I loved the violin,” she said. “It fit perfectly under my chin. It spoke to me as nothing ever had. And the best part was I got to sit in the orchestra when I played the violin.”

She has had an energizing impact on the BSO with her innovative approaches, including more adventurous programming (“Too Hot To Handel: The Gospel Messiah,” is scheduled for the holiday season), and regularly scheduled question-and-answer sessions with audiences after the concerts.

A chic, charismatic woman noticeably free of pretense and maestro-itis, she is also firmly committed to advancing the cause of serious music in the Baltimore schools. And it isn’t just lip service. She invested $100,000 of her MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant money to purchase musical instruments for low income children.

This also includes a mentoring program -- OrchKids -- involving symphony members and students at West Baltimore’s Harriet Tubman Elementary School.

“We’re turning kids onto music and musicianship,” she said.

It also involves the Peabody Conservatory, who helped them find Dan Trahey, the young program director. “He’s one of my new heroes,” Alsop said. “Dan shares my unwavering belief that music can transform all our lives.

“The main problem is that the kids do not have access, and they don’t feel included at a young enough age,” Alsop emphasized. “And so that’s why I think it’s really critical that we get to them early and we get started and get them involved. And I’m hoping 20 years down the way, that when we look at an orchestra sitting on a stage, it will look like the community that we live in.”

In regard to her gender, and the novelty of it in a field long dominated by males, Alsop also had ready answers.

“Conducting’s all about body language,” she said. “And when a woman makes a gesture, it’s interpreted differently from when a man makes the same gesture. There’s a balance to be struck. When I practice gesture -- which is important because that’s my instrument -- I try to almost get rid of any gender association.

"You know, if a woman makes a gesture that’s sort of delicate, it’s too girly. If a man does it, it’s sensitive. You have to be aware of these things. It’s really just the reality. And so I think that your gesture serves the music, and it’s important to understand how people are interpreting your gesture.

"I think about it a lot and talk about it quite a bit. I think one of the great compliments I got was when one of the big brass guys came up to me and said, 'You know, you were really good. I never noticed you were a girl.' "