A Trailblazing Feminine Conductor Is Nonetheless Alone on the Path

BALTIMORE – On Saturday, June 5th, a steamy evening here, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gave a small, socially distant concert to celebrate two milestones.

It was a start: the orchestra’s first live performance in 15 months and a long-awaited “return to what we are here for,” as Marin Alsop, the ensemble’s music director, told the audience.

It was an end too: the first of three farewell programs Alsop, 64, will complete her 14-year term with. During this time she has brought Baltimore artistic success and what is arguably the most impressive training program of any ensemble in the country.

Also in view of the orchestra’s financial and labor disputes before and during the pandemic, Alsop left a high grade. But there is also cause for despair. When she took up the position in 2007, she was the first female music director of a top American orchestra. At the time she certainly seemed to be the avatar of a new generation of women on important podiums; In 2002 she co-founded what is now known as the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship to support prospective female conductors.

But when she leaves this summer the field will be back to what it was before she arrived: 25 large orchestras – the Group 1 of the League of American Orchestra’s largest ensembles – with no female music directors. Alsop and her appointment in Baltimore are often referred to as groundbreaking, but so far she has been left alone on this particular path.

It’s true: there are more and more prominent female conductors. “But they haven’t changed at the highest level,” says Alsop with a touch of resignation in “The Conductor,” a new documentary about them that premieres on Monday 14 June at the Tribeca Film Festival. “The old boys’ network has been around for centuries. We have to create the network of old girls so that we can really be there for one another and support one another. “

Alsops record – a large number of orders and recordings; ambitious tours; the founding of the groundbreaking OrchKids educational program – is made all the more impressive by how controversial her time with the Baltimore Symphony began. In 2005, when their appointment was announced, the seven players who had served on the search committee issued a highly unusual statement urging the decision to be postponed.

“About 90 percent of orchestral musicians,” they said, “believe that ending the search process now before we are certain the best candidate has been found would be a disservice to BSO patrons and all music lovers in Maryland. ”

Although Alsop was not mentioned by name, it was a clear rebuke.

“What should have been a moment of great joy turned into the worst nightmare of my entire life,” recalls Alsop in the new documentary.

The problem wasn’t with their IDs. A regular guest of major American and European orchestras, she had worked her way up over the past two decades with appointments to institutions of growing size and importance, including the Eugene Symphony in Oregon, the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California, and the Colorado Symphony. When she started in Baltimore, she was also chief conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in England.

Part of the resistance is likely to have emanated from the ongoing fascination with maestro mysticism: the idea that great conductors are commanding, male, often traditional European teachers – like Yuri Temirkanov, who had been music director of the Baltimore Symphony since 1999 and who entered when he was almost 70 back. Temirkanov provided impressive accounts of the mainstream repertoire and colorful Russian scores, but had shown little interest in American music and had no real profile as a cultural leader in the city.

Alsop, a generation younger, seemed its opposite – less imposing; perhaps too casual for some; not really “great”. In addition, she was open about being a lesbian – and about her committed relationship with Kristin Jurkscheit, a horn player, and her young son Auden – in a largely heterosexual profession. Besides sexism, was homophobia a factor?

“Who knows?” Sop recently said during a rehearsal break at Juilliard School, where she worked with students on a program of compositions by Jessie Montgomery, Joan Tower and Alberto Ginastera. “I think every phobia in the book was probably part of it.”

“But,” she added, “I would say it was all passed out. I can’t say that it was an overtly discriminatory reaction. ”At the time, she explained, the Baltimore Symphony was going through a difficult period financially and the musicians felt marginalized.

“I tried to interpret the reaction – although it was difficult some days,” she said, “that it was a manifestation of a really dysfunctional institution.” The musicians “were so angry with the management; everyone yelled at everyone. What could I do to alleviate their distress? I decided that the best medicine would be success. “

Brian Prechtl, who has been a percussionist in the orchestra since 2003, agreed that the musicians’ resistance to Alsop said in an interview rather their frustration with the administration and the feeling of being excluded from what they saw as “just botched”. Alsop made a point of rallying the troops before her term began, and her inaugural concert as music director was a triumph with a brilliant rendition of John Adams’ “Fearful Symmetries” and a clear, colorful performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

Prechtl said that the musicians steadily joined Alsop’s artistic vision and leadership style. “She really wants to change the orchestral world and we really enjoyed being part of it,” he said.

“The rest of the world caught up with them,” he added. “At the moment there is an accounting process. No question, Marin was ahead of the curve. “

A year after she arrived, Alsop founded OrchKids, a program that provides free music education, instruments, mentoring, and meals to Baltimore public school children, both during and after school, from preschool through senior high school; Alsop kicked off the project by donating $ 100,000 from the MacArthur Genie Fellowship, which she received in 2005. OrchKids started with 30 children; today it reaches about 2,000 students from 10 public schools, the vast majority of them blacks and Latinos.

Many classic institutions – long associated with wealthy whites – have outreach programs for underserved communities. OrchKids, according to Prechtl, is “simply far above the efforts of other orchestras to make a contribution to social change in Baltimore”.

Born in 1956, Alsop grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan as the only child of two busy professional string players; she felt drawn to the violin early on. At 9, she had a revelation when her father took her to one of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic.

“That’s what I want to be,” she remembers in the new documentation.

She told Margaret Pardee, her beloved violin teacher at the Juilliard School prep department, of her new passion, but was told that “girls can’t”. Alsop earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in violin from Juilliard. But when she auditioned – three times – for the school’s prestigious conducting program, she was turned down each time. (That was then. This year, Alsop is the keynote speaker at Juilliard’s inauguration, which will award her an honorary doctorate.)

Alsop realized that she would have to take matters into her own hands if established routes to a podium were blocked. In 1981 she and a group of female colleagues founded String Fever, a small ensemble that played string arrangements from swing classics.

In retrospect, she sees the company primarily as “breaking out – something like: ‘Let’s stop all the rules’.” In 1984 she founded Concordia, a lively 50-member orchestra, with decisive support from Tomio Taki, a Japanese fashion mogul and businessman specializes in 20th century American music, including jazz scores. (Taki later funded the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship.)

A turning point came in 1988 when the 31-year-old Alsop was awarded a conducting scholarship at Tanglewood Music Center, where she worked closely with Leonard Bernstein; she returned the following summer for further coaching. Bernstein, already her hero, became her mentor. In the summer of 1990, just a few months before his death, he invited her to travel with him to Japan for the opening of the London Symphony Orchestra’s Pacific Music Festival. (Her eight CD recordings of Bernstein’s works include some defining performances, including a theatrical but testing rendition of “Mass” and a restless, dazzling “Age of Anxiety” symphony.)

In Baltimore, when the musicians and Alsop had “overcome their initial nervousness,” said Tim Smith, who covered her years with the orchestra for the Baltimore Sun, said they got the best of each other.

“I always found their performances more interesting and exciting, full of character that I didn’t always hear at the beginning,” said Smith, adding that the orchestra “was technically definitely in better class than when they arrived.”

“Temirkanov was interested in soul,” said Smith, while Alsop “was interested in the old rudiments of accuracy and balance. You could get fabulous results; I heard a great Schumann, Shostakovich. “

One of the most painful times of her tenure came to an end: In 2019, the orchestra management locked the players out in the summer due to budget problems in order to persuade them to sign a contract with less guaranteed working weeks. Alsop spoke on behalf of the musicians; a one-year contract returned the players. Last year, when the pandemic brought performances to a standstill, a new five-year contract was signed that restored a 52-week work schedule but came with significant wage concessions given the economic consequences.

“The Marin Festival,” as the orchestra calls it, continues with a program on June 12th on the grounds of the Music Center in Strathmore in Bethesda, the orchestra’s suburban second home, and ends with a livestream gala on the 19th audience and with soprano Renée Fleming and the world premiere of a new piece by Baltimore composer James Lee III in honor of Juneteenth with a story by local rapper and musician Wordsmith.

As Music Director Laureate, Alsop will run three subscription programs each season; Experienced conductor James Conlon will serve as the orchestra’s artistic advisor for the next three years while potential successors are being tried out. And it will keep its connection with OrchKids.

Naxos has just released a box with Alsop’s recording of the seven Prokofiev symphonies, which she recorded with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, where she was chief conductor from 2012 to 2019. Next month, she will join the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as the chief conductor and curator, a newly created title for her, of the Ravinia Festival in a series of programs. Her tenure as chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, which began in 2019, will be continued.

She was the first woman in all three positions. That is the performance – and also the pressure on – a pioneer.

“That was clearly a fight that had to be fought,” says Alsop in the documentary. “I’m glad I was the one who could fight it, and I’m happy that no one else has to fight this terrible fight.”