Ever since she took the helm as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007—and subsequently became the first female conductor at a major American orchestra—Marin Alsop has made a name for herself as an explosive force on the podium. (The New York Times once credited Alsop with “reinvigorating the orchestra, institutionally and artistically.”)
Today, the history-making maestra remains the only woman at the podium of one of the nation’s top 20 symphony orchestras. The former Leonard Bernstein pupil went on to become the first female conductor of the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms in London in 2013. She ranks the highest among female conductors (No. 42) in Bachtrack’s list of the world’s top 150 conductors. And although she renewed her Baltimore contract through 2021, rumors have begun circulating that the New York native could be a possible successor to Alan Gilbert when he steps down as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 2017. (The Guardian’s Tom Service called a potential Alsop appointment “among the most exciting” for the city.)
Gearing up for Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s celebratory opening of its Centennial 2015–2016 season this September and another whirlwind global tour, Alsop gave us a beat on everything from Brahms to the world’s greatest musical cities and what “home” means.
Previews Inside Out You were in São Paulo and California this summer, followed by London and then a historic trip to Cuba this fall. Do you become a different conductor when you travel to a new city or continent?
Marin Alsop I don’t change my style, but I do try to adapt what I’m doing, particularly during rehearsal. Every orchestra has a different personality. It’s usually reflective of the city, the country and the culture. The orchestra is a little microcosm of the geographical location. For example, in Tokyo, they have a different expectation of an authority figure than British musicians. Japanese musicians are very disciplined and very serious. There is no talking. In London, by contrast, there is a quickness and confidence that is encased in humor. Of course, the language barrier is a part of that—it’s hard to joke when you don’t speak the same language! Being a conductor is about being in charge, but it’s also about listening to the vibe and adjusting. It’s complicated. I’m always adapting, because my goal as a conductor is to get the best performance out of the musicians.
Previews Inside Out What are some of the most inspiring musical cities you’ve ever visited?
Marin Alsop Visiting the cities where I can walk on the same cobblestone streets as composers like Mahler and Mozart. There is something awesome in being able to play Mahler in Vienna and Dvořák in Prague. These are the moments that are meaningful to me. It depends on the music, too. Here in the states, I love connecting with the American jazz tradition in New Orleans.
Previews Inside Out Looking back on your travels, which auditoriums have been your favorite to conduct in?
Marin Alsop Conducting at The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam was an incredible experience. You walk down these dramatic stairs like it’s the Miss America pageant. In Berlin, the Philharmoniker is pretty spectacular for a more contemporary hall. In the United States, certainly Carnegie Hall holds meaning. For me, there is something meaningful about connecting to the past that feels privileged to me. I always feel like the music gods are shining down on me when I have that opportunity.
Previews Inside Out Which auditorium would you most love to conduct in and why?
Marin Alsop There is a new hall in Paris. I always enjoy going to the great halls of the world.
Previews Inside Out What does home mean to you?
Marin Alsop I think home is a place where I can really let loose, where I don’t have to be “on.” I can just connect with my family and friends. Because as a conductor, you have to be on most of the time—either you’re in front of the musicians to inspire them, or you’re meeting donors or you’re trying to sell CDs. There’s little time to relax. That’s the ultimate relaxation: no expectations.
Previews Inside Out Which room do you spend the most time in?
Marin Alsop I spend the most time in my study. There are four windows with lots of light, a fireplace, a desk from an old schoolhouse and a big overstuffed chair, all surrounded by books.
Previews Inside Out As the current music director of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, why do you think Latin America has become such an epicenter for classical music in the last few decades? There are Placido Domingo, Daniel Catán, Ingrid Fliter, Luis Parés, Gabriela Montero, Gustavo Dudamel and so many others….
Marin Alsop It’s a combination of many things, not the least of which is the incredible program, El Sistema Venezuela, which has touched almost a million kids over the last 40 years. Through this program, Latin American children are exposed to symphonic music. They have become passionate about playing and well versed in the vocabulary of classical music. Many Latin American countries are also experiencing the growth of their middle class, so there is an appetite for quality-of-life add-ons such as art, music and fine wine. However, we shouldn’t minimize how much the El Sistema program has influenced the trajectory of music in Latin America.
Previews Inside Out What has been the biggest change in the classical music world since you launched your career?
Marin Alsop The willingness of people to loosen the rules of classical music. Now, I see a lot of curating and talking from the podium. I see a lot more outreach from orchestras in terms of connecting with their communities. It’s very encouraging because I’ve always done these things, but it’s much easier to do these things when others are doing them. There is a new awareness that in order to be relevant, we must build those bridges for people in classical music. It’s a big change.
Previews Inside Out What has it meant to be a woman in the classical music world?
Marin Alsop When I first launched my conducting career [in 1989], there weren’t too many of us around. In my 20s, I assumed that there would be more women on the major podiums of the world. I feel encouraged about the numbers these days. In 2002, I started a fellowship for women conductors. Over the course of the last 10 or 15 years, I’ve seen an increase in the numbers of women applying. It’s growing exponentially. I see women not even thinking twice about going into conducting. There were other women before me who were really the first—those who suffered tremendous prejudice, and they got their foot in the door so that door could be opened by me. I feel very fortunate to be me at this particular time, because the industry has been open to the idea of a woman on the podium. I hope that by being an example, by being a mentor and being committed to young conductors and women, I can change that landscape for the future.
Previews Inside Out What would you say is your first love in terms of musical instruments?
Marin Alsop The violin.
Previews Inside Out How did you make the shift from playing to conducting?
Marin Alsop When I was nine years old, I saw Leonard Bernstein conduct live. I turned to my father and said, “I want to be a conductor.” I never wavered in that desire. It’s a bit strange to have that experience—like it was a religious calling. Then, I spent all of my time studying the scores, training my ear and preparing myself. It was a long road.
Previews Inside Out Historically speaking, who are some of your favorite musicians or symphonies?
Marin Alsop The music of Johannes Brahms. I was 12 years old and a violin student at a summer chamber music program. Hearing Brahms’ ‘String Sextet in B-flat,’ I finally understood music’s extraordinary power. It was the first music that inspired an emotional reaction from me. I was so happy to record his symphonies at the London Philharmonic in 2005.
Previews Inside Out For you, what is most meaningful about music?
Marin Alsop As human beings, we are all born hot-wired for music. Everyone responds to music in some way. Everyone has a favorite song. It sparks your memory. It can transport you to different moments in your life. It gives you comfort when words fail. It’s part of our DNA. Music has that power to communicate where words cannot.
Previews Inside Out Outside of music, where do you find inspiration?
Marin Alsop The world is an amazing place. My biggest inspiration is spending time with my son. He really inspires me to be the best person I can be. Outside of that, I’m inspired by the greatness in the world. I see all of the goodness that there really is.