For major female conductor, being a woman 'irrelevant'

09.27.07
Marin Alsop
CNN

Marin Alsop says the toughest harmony she faces this season doesn't lie in demanding symphonic scores or the orchestras who play them.

Marin Alsop gives her first concert as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's music director Thursday.

"I think the most challenging aspect," she says, of becoming the first woman to be made music director of a major U.S. symphony orchestra, "is people's need to focus on the fact that I'm a woman.

"It's really entirely irrelevant to what I do."

You can hear what is relevant -- the work -- Thursday at 8 p.m. ET when XM Radio channel 110 offers a live broadcast of her premiere concert at the helm of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The program airs from the Strathmore Arts Center in Rockville, Maryland, just outside Washington.

She's giving herself no easy ride, either, as she moves the program from Strathmore to Baltimore's Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall for weekend performances.

Alsop has chosen to throw open her leadership of the BSO with the fifth symphony of German composer Gustav Mahler, a mountainous challenge for more than 100 players.

The work springs with near-manic energy from crashing darkness to dancing buoyancy until it sinks into a ravishing, anguished fourth movement, adagietto, for harp and strings -- Mahler's aching love song for his new wife, Alma, herself a composer.

Alsop can demand a lot of her orchestras and audiences, too.

She's a determined advocate for the frequently dissonant, darkly radiant contemporary compositions that can send the tux-and-Tchaikovsky crowd screaming into the night.

"You can't program concerts by the piece," she says. "Otherwise you end up with the top 20 pieces that people want to hear."

So this season, she's bringing 11 living composers to Baltimore.

And since 1992, she has been music director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, California -- mentoring young conductors and giving stage to Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Michael Daugherty, Thomas Adès, John Corigliano, Christopher Rouse, Kenneth Fuchs and Aaron Jay Kernis.

Even the weekend's inaugural Baltimore program (there's an XM replay on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET) fields not only the Mahler 5th but also the 1988 woodwind-smart "Fearful Symmetries" of American composer John Adams ("Nixon in China," "The Death of Klinghoffer").

Still, you know what dogs her everywhere she goes.

As Alsop champions contemporary composers in an endless round-robin of guest conducting with the London Symphony, London Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris, Bournemouth Symphony, and the flagship orchestras of Zurich's Tonhalle, Milan's La Scala plus Pittsburgh, Denver, St. Louis, Washington, it's "brava!" she's hearing.

She explores the necessary question with a ready downbeat, decisivo.

"I don't want to give it short shrift. I want to take this responsibility of being a role model, in a certain way, and try to capitalize on it and make it easier for future generations and really make a contribution because of this circumstance I find myself in.

"But at the same time, I don't really want to dwell on it too much, because it really doesn't mean anything.

"In some ways, it's really a shame that it can be the 21st century and there can still be firsts for women. That's disappointing. But at the same time, I'm proud. I want to try to use this opportunity to pull a spotlight onto the fact that there can still be firsts for women and we need to work harder to make those part of history, rather than part of the present."

Nevertheless, a lot of music people can easily envy her own personal history in the business.

Alsop was born in Manhattan to professional musicians. Her mother, Ruth, still plays cello with the New York City Ballet Orchestra. Her father, LaMar, is a former concertmaster there. Alsop started piano at 2, violin at 5.

At 9, she decided she'd like to be a conductor when she heard Leonard Bernstein conduct the New York Philharmonic. Twenty-three years later, she became one of Bernstein's students when she won a conducting fellowship to the Tanglewood Music Center.

The resulting career clearly is exhilarating, absorbing and almost as much about airports as art.

"The expectation has developed," Alsop says, "that if one is successful, not only does a conductor have one full-time position but usually two full-time positions, preferably located nowhere near each other.

"So you're running from one end of the globe to the other. And then you're expected to run around and guest-conduct the orchestras of the world.

"It's a phenomenal thrill. But at the same time, it's a little disappointing that we've left the age when music directors spent weeks with their orchestras and really developed a specific sound, an identity, a footing in the community."

She might also like some more weeks with the family she leaves in Denver to stay on the move musically. "Of course, it can be hard on kids," she says, "when a parent has to leave for work. It's never easy."

A wry sense of humor helps, though. And it catches up with her as she describes her young son, a pre-teen already showing a faculty for languages.

"You know, I vowed that I'd never repeat my parents' pattern. I felt really pushed into music, playing piano at 2 and all.

"But you know what? As soon as my son could stand up, I pushed a violin at him."