Born on October 16, 1956, in New York, NY. Education: Attended Yale University, 1973-75; Juilliard School, New York, NY, bachelor of music degree, 1977, master of music degree, 1978; Tanglewood Music Center, Lenox, MA, studied conducting, 1988-89. Addresses: Management--ICM Artists, 40 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019. Website--Marin Alsop Official Website: http://www.marinalsop.com.

When Marin Alsop was appointed music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2005, she broke down another gender barrier in the classical music field in America: she became the first female principal conductor of a major symphony orchestra in the United States. A conductor with a sterling reputation, Alsop had received honors and accolades that included a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. So strong was the tradition of male orchestral leadership, however, that Alsop's appointment in Baltimore was accomplished only after a major controversy. Alsop refused to let the situation dent her devotion to making music. "I would attribute some of my success to the fact that I have never interpreted any rejections as gender-based, even if I could have done so," she stated on her website. "This enabled me to use such rejection as an opportunity to improve myself by working harder, listening to criticism, and developing even more perseverance!"

"I remember hearing music before I could speak," Alsop told Barbara Kantrowicz of Newsweek. Alsop was born October 16, 1956, in New York. The sounds of her parents' practicing filled her home, for both of them played in the orchestra of the New York City Ballet. "I was hearing music all the time," she told Kantrowicz. "It just becomes part of who you are." Alsop started out on the piano when she was very young and then added violin, attending music camps from age seven and taking classes at the famed Juilliard School.

Inspired by Leonard Bernstein

When she was nine, however, Alsop made a sudden change in musical direction. The catalyst was the charismatic conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein. Taken by her parents to a Philharmonic concert with the famed Bernstein on the podium--he was known for his vigorous conducting style, which might include leaping into the air during especially intense passages of music--Alsop was fascinated. "It was like a religious calling," she told The Economist. "I never even questioned it. I just decided I wanted to be a conductor." Her parents backed her decision and bought her a set of batons. Later on, her father gave her handmade batons as presents.

Many obstacles lay in Alsop's path. Conducting programs were few in number, and those that existed were highly competitive. Attending Yale University as an undergraduate, Alsop enrolled at Juilliard for a master's degree as a violinist, but was turned down for admission to the school's small conducting program. Alsop received a master's degree from Juilliard in 1978 and launched a freelance violin career in New York. Performing with the New York Philharmonic, she watched as errant players were humiliated by authoritarian male conductors, and she reflected that she could do better. She built experience with recording-session work, and she hired string players for commercials. Meanwhile, Alsop began acting on her desire to organize musical performances. "I started creating my own mini-galaxies," she explained to Kantrowicz. Bringing together a string quartet and a piano-violin-cello trio, she expanded the former group into a string orchestra called Concordia, with herself as conductor, in 1984. After an uncertain start with jazz, she became interested in swing band music as well, and formed another ensemble, String Fever.

The members of Concordia nurtured their leader's conducting career, helping her deal with the tricky ways in which a woman stood out in what was a virtually all-male field. "When a woman makes a gesture, the same gesture as a man, it's interpreted entirely differently," she recalled to Kantrowicz. "The thing I struggled with the most was getting a big sound from the brass because you really have to be strong. But if you're too strong, you're a b-i-t-c-h. As a woman, you have to be careful that it's not too harsh. It's a subtle line." Seeking to take her skills to the next level, Alsop applied five times to the prestigious summer conducting program at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts. On the fifth try she was accepted. The aging Bernstein and Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Seiji Ozawa were among her teachers there in 1988 and 1989, and in 1988 she took home the program's Koussevitzky Prize. She and Bernstein became friends.

Programmed Contemporary Works

Alsop's Tanglewood studies led to more podium engagements. In 1989 she was hired as music director by two small orchestras, the Eugene (Oregon) Symphony and the Long Island (New York) Philharmonic. In 1993 she moved on to the Colorado Symphony in Denver. There she became known for conducting contemporary, accessible American works, including those by composers Michael Daugherty, Libby Larsen, James P. Johnson, and Christopher Rouse. Audiences responded positively, and the little-known orchestra grew in renown. In both Oregon and Colorado, Alsop tried to get beyond the formality that kept ordinary music listeners away from classical concerts; she often turned to the audience to talk about the music that was about to be played, and she made personal appearances at venues such as local bookstores. Alsop also served as music director of California's Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. She championed the music of contemporary composer John Adams, leading a performance of his opera Nixon in China at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

In 2002 Alsop was named principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony in England and almost immediately began to garner high-profile awards in a country where classical musicians attain levels of celebrity hardly dreamed of in the United States. She won Gramophone magazine's Artist of the Year award, the Conductor's Award from the Royal Philharmonic Society, and, in 2005, the Classical Brit Award for Best Female Artist. These honors brought Alsop chances to record: she led the Bournemouth Symphony in recordings of music by Bela Barók, Kurt Weill, and her mentor Leonard Bernstein; the Scottish National Orchestra in music by Samuel Barber; and one of England's premier ensembles, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, in a set of symphonies by Johannes Brahms on the Naxos label.

Baltimore Appointment Provoked Rebellion

With these credentials, Alsop was selected in 2005 by the board of directors of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to fill the orchestra's vacant conductor post. She had already made several guest conducting appearances with the orchestra and had been well-received by players and audiences alike. Thus it came as a surprise to observers, and most of all to Alsop herself, when orchestra members on the group's conductor search committee issued a statement (quoted by Lev Grossman in Time) saying that "approximately 90 percent of the musicians believe that ending the search process now, before we are sure the best candidate has been found, would be a disservice to the patrons of the BSO." Alsop was shocked. "It was bizarre," she recalled to Grossman. "It was like being caught in a black hole. I was like, 'Wow, what happened?'"

The orchestra's board stuck by its decision, and the players backed down and issued a statement saying that they could work with Alsop. She met with the orchestra and said (as she told Grossman), "Listen, I don't know how this got to this place. But I need to know that we're a team. It'll be hard for me, and I can put this behind us if you can." Grossman further described that "Alsop offered to leave the room and let the musicians talk it over." Alsop described the outcome to Grossman: "I didn't even get backstage. They said, 'Come back!' It was nice." Regardless of her reception in Baltimore, Alsop would continue to gain visibility on the world stage; her appearances in 2005 and 2006 ranged around the world from Boston to London, Zurich, Cologne, and Prague, and to Sydney, Australia.

Alsop's rapidly rising career trajectory also attracted the attention of the anonymous nominators who suggest recipients for the annual MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, no-strings-attached cash awards of $500,000 that have been popularly termed "genius grants." Alsop, who had overcome gender barriers and had fresh ideas about how to revitalize the classical tradition, won one of the awards in 2005, shortly after the Baltimore uproar. Her biography on the foundation's website noted, "In presenting concerts, she often addresses audiences directly and previews short passages demonstrating themes and motifs of pieces to be played. These engaging presentations demystify challenging music for a wide range of audiences." It seemed likely that these innovations would be recognized, along with Alsop's entry into the previously all-male conducting club, as milestones in the history of classical music in America.

by James M. Manheim

Marin Alsop's Career

Freelance violinist and conductor, New York, 1980s; formed and conducted orchestra Concordia, 1984; Eugene (OR) Symphony Orchestra, music director, 1989-96; Long Island Philharmonic Orchestra, music director, 1990-96; Cabrillo (CA) Music Festival, 1992--; Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Glasgow, Scotland, principal guest conductor, 1999--; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (U.K.), principal conductor, 2002--; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, principal conductor, 2006--.

Marin Alsop's Awards

Tanglewood Music Center, Koussevitzky Conducting Prize, 1988; Royal Philharmonic Society, Conductor's Award; Gramophone magazine, Artist of the Year award; Classical Brit Award, Best Female Artist, 2005; John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, MacArthur Fellowship, 2005.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

July 25, 2006: Alsop's album, Takemitsu: A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden, was released. Source: All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com, July 27, 2006.

Further Reading

Sources

PeriodicalsOnline

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 6 years ago

It was my great good fortune to be about twenty feet from Marin when she conducted (as an Exxon Fellow) the Richmaond Symphony Orchestra in the '80s. It was an impressive performance and I felt fortunate to be in her audience. I have heard her interviews on NPR when she was with the Bournemouth. All I can say to you is GO HEAR HER LIVE IF YOU GET THE CHANCE! I hope she will someday return to the States as principle conductor of one of our best; that said I wish her the very best in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

over 8 years ago

I recently attended the strathmore for the performance of "too hot to handel". Ms. Alsop was a master of masters in her performance and leading the choir, orchestra, and singers. Nobody could doubt this was her masterpiece as she tease each section for their contribution and gave them credit. But most of all was her total awareness of the entire performance as her body rock, swung and cuddled both the audience and the performers. The memory will last a lifetime.