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UpClose: Marin Alsop

Mike Lawson • Features • September 19, 2013

Reinvigorating the Classical Art Form

Conductor Marin Alsop. Photo by Grant Leighton.

Marin Alsop is the real deal. A MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant” recipient? Check. A “fellow” at the prestigious American Academy of Arts & Sciences? She certainly is. The first woman to ever become the music director of a major American orchestra? Oh yeah, Marin Alsop is that, too. Meanwhile, this acclaimed conductor and music director is also one of the staunchest and most active advocates for music that one could possibly imagine.

The daughter of two professional musicians in New York – her father was a concertmaster with the New York City Ballet and her mother a cellist in that orchestra – Alsop began playing an instrument at a very early age, and then was awestruck when, at age nine, she had the opportunity to see Leonard Bernstein in concert. At that moment, she became determined to be a conductor when she grew up. Of course, at nine years old, her goal of leading an orchestra seemed pretty straightforward, and there was little thought to the groundbreaking pioneering on behalf of women everywhere. (To this day, Alsop maintains a degree of incredulousness that the role of conductor was unattainable for women. She says, “I am extraordinarily proud to be the ‘first’ [female conductor of a major orchestra] but I am also shocked by the fact that in the 21st century there can still be ‘firsts’ for women!”)

Alsop studied at Yale and then Juilliard, and was mentored by her childhood inspiration, Leonard Bernstein himself, at the Tanglewood Music Center. There, she won the Koussevitzky Prize as outstanding student conductor in 1989. After notable posts with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in England, Alsop was named the music director designate of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for the 2006-07 concert season. She was then officially given the role of music director for the ensemble in September of 2007. With her recent contract extension through 2020-21, she will be holding that position for the foreseeable future. Alsop is also currently the music director of Brazil’s Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and California’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, through which she has been building an audience for new music since 1992.

A consistent theme throughout Marin Alsop’s career has been using her influence to grow her audiences and further the art form. A year after taking charge of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Alsop founded OrchKids, an El Sistema-inspired music education program in Baltimore’s impoverished inner city. She hosted a podcast called “Clueless About Classical Music,” which was dedicated to “erasing classical music’s elitist stigma and attracting a new generation of fans,” as well as a “webumentary film series” with a similar mission. Alsop is also the founder of the Rusty Musicians, a program designed to give amateur musicians in the Baltimore area the opportunity to learn from and play alongside the professionals in the symphony orchestra, while being conducted by Marin herself. Throughout her many activities, Alsop has made a concerted effort to demystify classical music, to make it accessible, attainable, and enjoyable for all.

SBO recently checked in with the busy conductor to discuss trends in classical music and the process of growing and reinvigorating the art form.

 

School Band & Orchestra: You have mentioned being inspired by Leonard Bernstein when you were very young. What was it in particular that struck you back when you first saw him perform?

Marin Alsop: I was nine years old, and I was inspired by people who exhibited unbridled passion for music and a commitment beyond what I saw from anyone else. Bernstein broke all of the rules for conducting brilliantly, showing that anything could be done. He suffered from brutal and unfair criticism for doing so, but he remained true to himself.

 

SBO: Would you mind speaking briefly about your experiences breaking through gender barriers in the field? What have these experiences taught you? And are there any lessons that you hope others (particularly, but not limited to, educators teaching future generations of performers and orchestra leaders) might learn from your achievements?

MA: I never interpreted any rejection as gender bias and that freed me to be open to criticism and inspired me to work harder each time I received a rejection. How one deals with small failures determines one’s destiny. For teachers, encourage students to take risks and remind them that failing is an important part of the learning process. We learn so much more from mistakes than we do from successes! Be sympathetic and compassionate, but also help students develop objectivity and an ability to be self critical in the best sense.

 

SBO: On the topic of risk-taking, does classical music (and the major institutions that perform such music) need a makeover to stay relevant in today’s society? What is your vision for the future of this art form, and for the role of professional orchestras in modern society?

MA: All institutions, artistic and non-artistic, need periodic “makeovers” in order to keep abreast of the times. That’s not to say that the art itself needs changing, but the delivery systems used to share that art with the public often need reviewing and updating.

I remember growing up in the 1960s and feeling the elitism of classical music even then. Thankfully my father then took me to that concert conducted and moderated by Leonard Bernstein. He broke every single rule and reached across the footlights to every one of us in that audience.

There are major segments of the population that have never been exposed to or been able to access classical music. This is a tremendous disservice that needs immediate addressing; the ancillary benefits of exposure to classical music should be available to everyone. Playing an instrument as a child helps develop the skills needed to succeed in the 21st-century workplace: teamwork, creative thinking, self-motivation, self-esteem, hand/eye dexterity, and memory, to name only a few.

Through our OrchKids program in Baltimore, we aspire to give that access to every child in the community. We started five years ago with about 25 kids and this year we will are serving close to 900! Watching these young people grow and thrive is a testament to the transformative power of symphonic music.

 

SBO: Unfortunately, many of the headlines about major orchestras these days seem to focus on funding challenges, budget cuts, poor attendance, and other struggles. What’s your perspective on the best way to address these challenges and keep these ensembles healthy and strong?

MA: The challenge of fiscal stability and audience development are always with us, but do seem to take more of a center stage these days. I would urge us to always put the music first and remember that we cannot simply “cut” our way to success. Each organization must find its own balancing point where it is serving the art, the artists, the community, and all constituents with responsibility and accountability. Our challenge is to maintain a high artistic standard while continuing to take artistic risks, albeit fiscally calculated ones.

 

SBO: Is there anything that you’d like to see elementary and high school music educators do more of to help perpetuate orchestral music?

MA: It is imperative that we enable as many young people as possible to experience the joy and passion of music. For many young people, music can provide them with a haven, a healthy escape, and a safe place for them to express themselves and feel vulnerable. Orchestras are communities and teams, both critical to young people’s growth and development.

 

SBO: What was the inspiration for the OrchKids program? What are your goals and expectations for that project?

MA: I fully expect that when I go to the doctor in 20 years, she will say to me, “Didn’t you once conduct the Baltimore Symphony? I know because I was an Orchkid, and OrchKids taught me to see the possibilities out there for me.”

My inspiration was the transformative power of music in my life and my goals are to share this life-changing experience with as many kids as possible – with an initial goal of all 84,000 Baltimore City Public School children!

 

SBO: How would you describe the progress that OrchKids has made since its inception?

MA: It is nothing short of impressive, unexpected, inspiring, and joyful.

 

SBO: What’s your opinion on the state of music education in public schools? What are the major challenges you see music educators facing, and do you have any advice for school band and orchestra directors on how to meet some of those challenges? 

MA: Not being from the educational field myself, these are difficult questions to answer. I am encouraged by the shifting sands leaning towards more arts in the schools. America seemed to be sidetracked by an extreme need to measure everything for so long and it is time to give young people breathing room to experience, to feel things, to express themselves without measurement.

 

SBO: Any other thoughts you’d like to share with instrumental school music educators?

MA: You are the most important influences these young people may ever have! That is an enormous privilege. They are looking to you for guidance, leadership and passion. Music is the perfect vehicle to share these gifts with them.

 

 

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