Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Welcomes First Maestra

Marin Alsop

Finally tonight, a conductor making music and history. Jeffrey Brown has our report.

JEFFREY BROWN: Marin Alsop has appeared with some of the world's leading orchestras for many years now. An exciting and charismatic performer, she's in great demand. And as the new music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the simple fact that she is a "she" -- not "maestro," but "maestra" -- Alsop is making history as the first woman to head a major American orchestra, as traditionally defined by budget size and other factors.

She's been around music as long as she can remember. Both parents played in the orchestra of the New York City Ballet. She began piano at age two, violin at age five, and she was nine when her parents took her to see a concert led by Leonard Bernstein, and her world changed.

MARIN ALSOP, American Conductor: See, this was the problem. I was getting yelled at. I played violin by nine, and I was getting yelled at for trying to lead the orchestra from the back of the second violins. So I saw this guy and I thought, "Wait a minute. He's not getting into trouble." See? That was my motivation.

JEFFREY BROWN: You were getting in trouble for trying to lead from way back there?

MARIN ALSOP: From way back in the second violins.

JEFFREY BROWN: What were you doing, waving your hands in the back of the second...

MARIN ALSOP: No. I was moving, you know, and smiling. But then I saw Bernstein, and he was having the time of his life, and nobody was yelling at him. And I thought, "Ah, that's what I can do."

JEFFREY BROWN: "I can do that."


Bringing vision to the audience

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1989, Bernstein became an actual mentor, when Alsop won a prestigious conducting fellowship at the Tanglewood Music Center.

Step up here for me, please. OK. So, tell me, what is like to stand here in front of 100 musicians? What are you trying to do?

MARIN ALSOP: My responsibility as the conductor is to be the messenger, really, for the composer, so I'm trying to bring the notes on the page to life. I mean, it's a little bit like being -- what I imagine being a director would be. You know, you have this vision of what the playwright wants, and then you have to somehow get your actors to express that.

JEFFREY BROWN: To do that, a conductor needs an orchestra, of course. As a young woman trying to make her way, Alsop started her own, the Concordia in New York City. From there, her career grew. She's led the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California since 1991.

At age 36, she became head of the Colorado Symphony and served there for 12 years. Now, at 51, she's taken over in Baltimore. As music director, she programs concerts and oversees hiring, among much else. She is, in all ways, the public face of the orchestra, and she's breaking a longstanding barrier.

MARIN ALSOP: We have these sort of archetypal images of what people should look like. And the maestro is older, white, you know, sort of graying, slightly graying hair, maybe wearing an ascot, you know, coat over the shoulders, perhaps an accent. I mean, I don't really fit any of those criteria. So I think we all have to get over our preconceptions, and perhaps this will help.

Every gesture I make is hopefully conveying a musical idea, but there are obstacles that I have to overcome, because there's a way that society interprets a gesture from a woman, whereas the same gesture from a man is interpreted differently.

JEFFREY BROWN: Give me an example.

MARIN ALSOP: So, for example, if I come out and I want a big sound from the brass, and I really, you know, "Give it to me," you know, like -- and I'm too over the top, you know, usually, I'm called a word that I can't say, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: Don't say it here, but you mean it's just too much.

MARIN ALSOP: Yes, but if...

JEFFREY BROWN: You're appearing too strong.

MARIN ALSOP: Exactly. But if a guy comes out and does that, "Wow," you know, "he's taking charge."

 A conductor's communication

JEFFREY BROWN: Society may see gender differences, but musicians insist that, male or female, it's a conductor's ability to communicate that matters most.

MUSICIAN: It's almost a primordial thing than it is an actual learned response. They have this enormous animal effect on an orchestra, and great conductors can turn an orchestra into tremendous beasts at any time.

MUSICIAN: The main focus that we're looking for is how they interpret the music, how they can express and feel the music, and it's interesting, because some conductors talk a lot, some conductors never say a word, but they communicate through their body.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the rehearsal for their first official concert together, Alsop and the musicians worked on Symphony No. 5 by Gustave Mahler, the great Austrian composer and conductor who died in 1911. They also worked on their own developing relationship.

MARIN ALSOP: You know, just these ritards, I feel a little bit like everyone has a different vision of how they should go. If you could just let go and let me take responsibility, that would be extremely helpful.

JEFFREY BROWN: I was watching rehearsal today, and there was a couple points where it seemed like you weren't quite getting what you wanted. There was a point where you said, "Let me guide you more," or, "You can lean on me a bit." What does that mean?

MARIN ALSOP: We have to get to know each other, and they have to, I think, go through a number of concerts with me, with different repertoire, to feel that they can really let go and be safe, in a way. And I'm trying to reassure them that, you know, it's OK to lean on me. And, you know, you can't -- this is the thing. You can't demand trust. It's something that grows.

Budget challenges in the symphony

JEFFREY BROWN: Success won't come easily. The Baltimore Symphony, like others around the country, has faced serious budget and morale problems. Even the announcement of Alsop's appointment two years ago was met with an embarrassing public dispute between the musicians and management.

But today, all signs look up. The financial picture is better, and musicians and conductors seem in-sync. The orchestra just released its first recording in eight years, with violinist Joshua Bell, in a performance of "The Red Violin" concerto by John Corigliano, one of today's leading composers. The orchestra has also established a presence on iTunes and on XM Satellite Radio.

The now-ness of classical music, in fact, is something Alsop wants to emphasize. In a typical concert, she'll program the work of a contemporary composer alongside an acknowledged master. At her opening concert, it was John Adams along with Mahler.

Alsop continues to mentor the next generation of conductors, here with 25-year-old Joey Yung. She's established a special fellowship for young women. All of this, of course, is aimed at bringing classical music into the 21st century.

You have said that trying to bring the excitement of the orchestra to the public is a bit like trying to make your grandparents hip, is the way I think you put it. That's a great line, but...

MARIN ALSOP: It's a tough sell sometimes. The orchestras do a very, very good job of being involved in education, but I want to move it to a new level, you know, and have it be really more participatory, more engaging, more hooked into the technology of today.

JEFFREY BROWN: You're not imagining that you could ever reach a mass audience, I guess?

MARIN ALSOP: Well, why not? Sure. Why not?

JEFFREY BROWN: You're thinking big.

MARIN ALSOP: Yes, I mean, to me, it doesn't really matter how many people, but that everyone feels, "Oh, that's my symphony. I can go there."

You know, some people feel that they're not welcome or that they haven't had this experience of going into the concert hall. I want to get rid of that.