Conductor and musician
B orn October 16, 1956, in New York, NY; daughter of LaMar (a violinist) and Ruth (a cellist) Alsop; children: one son. Education: Attended Yale University, 1972-75; The Juilliard School, New York, NY, bachelor’s degree in music, 1977, master’s degree in music, 1978, both in violin performance.
Addresses: Office—Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral Street #1, Baltimore, MD 21201.
F reelance violinist, 1976—; founder/member of String Fever, 1981; founder/conductor of the Concordia Orchestra, New York City, 1984; conducting fellowship, Tanglewood Music Center, Lenox, MA, 1988-89; associate conductor, Richmond Symphony, Richmond, VA, 1988; music director, Eugene Symphony Orchestra, Eugene, OR, 1989-95; music director, Long Island Philharmonic, Melville, NY, 1989-95; music director, Cabrillo Music Festival, Santa Cruz, CA, 1992; music director, Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Denver, CO, 1993-2003; principal guest conductor, City of London Sinfonia, 1999—; principal conductor, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Poole, England, 2002-07; music director, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, 2007—; guest conductor with the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, LosAn-geles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Boston Pops Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic, The Netherlands’ Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Switzerland’s Zurich Tonhalle, Orchestre de Paris, Bavarian Radio Symphony, Boston Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, and Tokyo Philharmonic.
Awards: Leopold Stokowski International Conducting Competition, American Symphony Orchestra, 1988; Koussevitzky Conducting Prize, Tanglewood Music Center, 1989; Distinguished Service Award, University of Oregon, 1997; Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, State of Colorado, 1998; Artist of the Year, Gramophone, 2003; Conductor’s Award, Royal Philharmonic Society, 2003; MacArthur Fellowship, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 2005; Classical BRIT Female Artist of the Year, British Phonographic Industry, 2005; BBC Radio 3 Listeners Award, Royal Philharmonic Society, 2006; European Women of Achievement Award, 2007.
M arin Alsop made history in 2007 when she took over as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Alsop, a woman working in the male-dominated world of orchestral conducting, is the first woman to lead a major U.S. orchestra. Prior to the appointment, the charismatic “maestra” made guest appearances with some of the world’s leading orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, London Symphony, Lon- don Philharmonic, Tokyo Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris and The Netherlands’ Royal Concertge-bouw Orchestra.
While Alsop is credited with shrinking the gender barrier at the podium, she has spent her career downplaying the issue. Alsop wishes to be known as a great conductor, not a female conductor. “My success is probably due to the fact that I’ve never interpreted any rejection as gender-based,” she told the London Daily Telegraph’s Geoffrey Norris. “I’ve always felt that the reason I didn’t get something was that I wasn’t good enough, and so I would go back and try to reassess what I was doing and make more progress. Once you start to feel that you’re not getting there because of something that’s completely out of your control, that’s the beginning of the end.”
An only child, Alsop was born on October 16, 1956, in the borough of Manhattan in New York City to musicians LaMar and Ruth Alsop. She grew up in Dobbs Ferry, New York. Her father, a violinist, and her mother, a cellist, both played for the New York City Ballet Orchestra. Her father was the concertmaster (lead violin). LaMar Alsop also played the saxophone, flute, clarinet, and viola, and was a world-class whistler, performing back up for many recordings and commercials. Alsop’s mother also played piano and was a potter and weaver.
For Alsop, music was part of everyday life. On the Frequently Asked Questions section of her Web site, Alsop discussed her entry into the music world. “Unlike many of my friends who fell in love with music through their schools where they were allowed to pick an instrument and play in the orchestra, I was born with a job! My parents are both classical musicians and they could never ever imagine a life for their child that was not filled with music!” Alsop took up piano as a toddler and picked up the violin at age five. By seven, she was studying at the highly competitive New York-based Juilliard School and later studied classical guitar.
Early on, Alsop knew she wanted to be a conductor. The idea was planted in her mind after her father took her to see the New York Philharmonic, where she watched the legendary Leonard Bernstein at the podium. Speaking to the Birmingham Post’s Terry Grimley, Alsop recalled that defining moment. “I was about nine or ten. My dad took me to a young persons’ concert and it was almost like a religious calling. I knew it right away. I was very bossy. My parents are both string players, professional musicians, and I always had a passion for music but was always interested in doing something they didn’t do.”
From that moment on, Alsop’s mind was set. At 12 or 13 years old, she told one of her Juilliard teachers that she intended to become a conductor. The teacher told her that girls could not conduct. Alsop went home and told her father, who in turn marched out and bought her a box of batons so she could practice.
At age 16, Alsop entered Yale University but, in 1975, transferred back to Juilliard, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1977 and a master’s degree in 1978, both in violin performance. In 1976, Alsop began working as a freelance violinist playing with the New York Philharmonic, the New York Chamber Symphony, and the American Composers Orchestra, among others. She played alongside her parents with the New York City Ballet Orchestra. Alsop also made the rounds on Broadway, playing in several shows, including Sweeney Todd and Showboat. She did studio work, contributing to film scores and television commercials. She played on albums as well, once working with Grammy winner Billy Joel.
In 1979, Alsop began conducting studies with Vienna native Carl Bamberger, conductor of the New York Philharmonic. When Alsop came over for instruction, Bamberger rearranged his living room furniture to resemble an orchestra pit. In 1981, she founded String Fever, a ten-piece chamber ensemble devoted to playing and promoting Big Band swing. The band had four violins, two violas, two cellos, a bass player, and a drummer.
Meanwhile, Alsop continued to pursue her dream of becoming a conductor. To get face time as a conductor, Alsop formed her own ensembles. Luckily, her freelancing career was lucrative. In 1984, Alsop used $10,000 of her savings to start a string orchestra called Concordia. She appointed herself conductor. The group played all types of music, but specifically explored jazz and music from the 1920s and ’30s that blurred the lines between classical and pop. The group provided a consistent outlet for Alsop to hone her skills and establish her own conducting style that would set her apart from her male peers.
Speaking to Sarah Urwin Jones of the London Times, Alsop put it this way: “A woman has to really think about how she gets sound out of the orchestra on the podium. If you want a really big dynamic range, you have to make a different gesture from a man, because otherwise people think that you’re trying to be this huge person and they get scared of that. You’re a woman possessed. Or a bitch. Whereas in a man it’s seen as strong.”
After working with her Concordia Orchestra for four years, Alsop won a fellowship to study conducting at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts. She applied to the program several times and was rejected prior to winning. At Tangle-wood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Alsop was able to study under her hero, Bernstein, as well as with acclaimed conductors Gustav Meier and Seiji Ozawa.
For Alsop, studying under Bernstein was a dream come true. “He was unbelievable—hard to describe, but such a generous human being,” Alsop told the Birmingham Post. “We hit it off tremendously when I first started with him at Tanglewood . He was hugely embracing of me, but he couldn’t figure out a woman conducting. He was of that generation—he didn’t get it. He would say, ‘When I’m in the hall, I close my eyes and I can’t tell you’re a woman.’ ”
It was at Tanglewood that Alsop began breaking down gender barriers. During the summer fellowship, she lived on the men’s floor at the dormitory, across the hall from the percussionists. The musicians embraced her style and she became the star conductor of the 1988 season. Writing in the Boston Globe, Richard Dyer noted the warmth and accord with which the orchestra members welcomedAlsop. “They greeted her approach to the podium by batting their bows on their music stands, and when she had finished they joined the cheering and clapping of the audience, swelling the noise by stomp-ing their feet.”
Alsop’s success at Tanglewood led to several guest conducting jobs. In 1988, she served as associate conductor of Virginia’s Richmond Symphony and in 1989 she became music director of Oregon’s Eugene Symphony. In 1989, Alsop was invited back to Tanglewood. At the end of the season, she was awarded the Koussevitzky Conducting Prize, given to the outstanding student conductor. Alsop was the first woman to receive the honor.
An invitation to the Boston Pops Orchestra followed and, in 1990, Alsop became the first woman to conduct a program of the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall. During an interview with the Boston Globe’s Marian Christy a few days before the historic performance, Alsop attributed her conducting success to her empathetic style. “My approach to the musicians is that I’m one of them. I have an idea of what it’s like when a conductor doesn’t appreciate you. When it happened to me, I had the feeling that I was doing menial labor. It was as if I was the kitchen help and had to come through the back door.” Alsop knows firsthand that if musicians harbor resentments toward the conductor, the music will not flourish. She also understands that musicians are human, and, like all humans, they have good days and bad days. She understands that musicians cannot be forced to perform—they must be inspired.
Alsop, herself, has played for conductors who swore at her. The experience was educational because Alsop realized that the angrier the conductor got, the worse the music got. “We, the violinists, were demoralized,” she told Christy. “Now, if the musicians aren’t performing well, I say: ‘Don’t worry! It’s going to be all right!’ They don’t believe you, of course, but they feel better. And when they feel better, they play better.” In an effort to get the musicians to understand her approach, Alsop begins rehearsals by telling the musicians the story behind the music or a story about the composer.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Alsop stayed busy hopping from orchestra to orchestra as a guest conductor. She also served as music director of the Long Island Philharmonic from 1989 to 1996 and as music director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra from 1993 to 2003. In 2002, Alsop made history when she became principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony, thus becoming the first woman to lead a major British symphony.
In 2005, Alsop was appointed music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, scheduled to take over the reigns in 2007. The orchestra was suffering from debt and dwindling attendance. The announcement caused an uproar and many of the players told the symphony board to keep looking. Some publicly questioned Alsop’s musical depth, fearing she might water down the programs. Alsop was known for performing some less serious orchestral works at various venues. The Baltimore musicians contacted her former colleagues and some musicians who had worked with Alsop said they did not enjoy the experience. Alsop acknowledged that she had made some mistakes early on in her career but had learned from them. During the ordeal, Alsop met with the musicians privately, in a candid meeting, to air all grievances. She also reminded them that they did not really know the real Alsop. Afterward, she signed the contract.
When the Baltimore Symphony gave its first performance under Alsop in September 2007, the Music Center at Strathmore was filled to capacity. She put the orchestra through the paces, opening with “Fear ful Symmetries,” a 25minute-long piece by American composer John Adams, followed by Gustav Mahler’s five-movement Symphony No. 5. Washington Post reviewer Tim Page liked the show. “Alsop is a lot of fun to watch,” he wrote. “Like her great mentor, Leonard Bernstein, when she is conducting she seems a map of the score—vigorously alive, sensitive to every passing idea, riding the waves.” He did note that the slow-tempo “Adagietto” of Mahler’s piece failed to inspire. In the end, though, Page wrote that “the Baltimore Symphony sounded terrific, with its crooning saxes, loamy croaks from the lower brass, surging strings and taut percussion, and you don’t get such eager and colorful playing without a guide.” By the midway mark of the season, attendance was up.
For Alsop, music is life. She believes every child should study an instrument. On her Web site, she explained why: “Learning an instrument develops innumerable skills: physically it develops hand-eye coordination; it teaches children that nothing comes overnight and that practice is the key to success; it teaches them how to motivate themselves and budget their time and be responsible to themselves to practice! These are lessons that stayed with me for life and helped me become successful!”
Birmingham Post, March 22, 2001, p. 17.
Boston Globe, September 3, 1988, p. 9 (Living); May 26, 1990, p. 20 (Living); May 30, 1990, p. 39 (Living).
Daily Telegraph (London, England), March 22, 2001, p. 27.
New Yorker, January 7, 2008.
New York Times, October 9, 2005, p. 1 (Music).
Times (London, England), February 9, 2007, p. 16 (Features).
Washington Post, September 29, 2007, p. C1.
“Biographical Timeline,” Marin Alsop, http://www.marinalsop.com/timeline.php (January 27, 2008).
“Marin Alsop Biography,” Marin Alsop, http://www.marinalsop.com/longbio.php (January 27, 2008).
“Media F.A.Q.,” Marin Alsop, http://www.marinalsop.com/mediafaq.php (January 27, 2008).