Call her maestra? Marin Alsop conducts Houston Symphony's first concert of thenew year
When the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Marin Alsop steps up to the conductor's podium, she's the ultimate authority figure. Although she is the first woman to lead a major American orchestra, she says it's only when she talks to pesky reporters like me that she even thinks about gender.
Alsop's background is impressive; she trained under Leonard Bernstein and is one of only a few conductors regularly involved with the London Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestra. Since taking her post in Baltimore in 2007 she's launched a host of initiatives including getting the orchestra back into the studio and founding an after-school program to bring music education and instruments to the city's disadvantaged youth.
Alsop is in town to conduct the Houston Symphony Thursday, Saturday and Sunday in a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1.
I spoke to the 53-year-old conductor in between Houston rehearsals, and asked her a few questions about her rise to success and her plans for the new year.
Q: I understand you began your undergraduate education at Yale and then transferred to Juillard. What did you intend to pursue?
A: I actually hadn't declared a major yet but I was leaning toward mathematics. I also liked French a lot.
Q: How did you make the leap from liberal arts to being a conductor?
A: For me the leap had really been to go to a liberal arts school in the first place. My parents are both professional musicians, so to them it was rebellious of me to go to Yale and consider going into another field other than music. I mean I lived, breathed and ate music all the time. My father played violin, and my mother is a cellist. He retired from the New York City Ballet just probably five years ago, and she's a year from being 80 and still plays there.
Q: What is it like to work and find such success in a field so dominated by men?
A: These are tricky questions, because there's only one conductor. It's not as though I'm standing there in a sea of men; being the lone woman on the Supreme Court would be a much more obvious situation. And it's always been a role I've gravitated toward. Even playing team sports as a kid, I was never very good, but I was always captain. It's in my personality to galvanize people and bring them together. Really only when I talk to journalists do I think about [being a woman] much.
Q: You recently founded OrchKids. Why is music education so important to you?
A: I'm not exactly sure where it emanated from or where it originated. For me growing up in a household filled with music was synonymous with growing up in a household that was full of possibility. I've always wanted to enable every child to have that experience. I have no expectation they'll all become professional musicians, god forbid, but it definitely opens doors to self esteem. This is combined with the fact that orchestras don't represent the ethnic diversity of the population. One way to change that ratio is to get to kids when they're very young. And another important component was to reconnect my musicians with their passion and why they became musicians, and that's all about being a kid.
There is an access point for every person into classical music, but we've done a terrible job of supporting this bogus attitude that it's a snobbish, inaccessible, boring art form. We have a lot of work to do.
Q: What's your New Year's resolution?
A: Yoga. I'll have about three weeks in March that I'll be in Baltimore, so I'm going to try yoga, I think. If you get too ambitious with these resolutions you just set yourself up for failure, and I've got enough risk of that in my professional life.