DENVER — Question: What does it take to make a great female conductor?
Answer: The same things it takes to make a great male conductor ... plus the drive of a freight train.
Marin Alsop, director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in Denver, is arguably the most respected woman ever to take up the baton. In a profession where only a handful of women have made a name for themselves, Ms. Alsop has been appointed principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony, the oldest full-time orchestra in Britain. She is the first woman ever to hold the top position with a major British orchestra.
She has conducted many of the greatest orchestras in the world, including, the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the San Francisco Symphony.
She is a protégé of noted conductors Seiji Ozawa, Gustav Meier, and Leonard Bernstein. In fact, Bernstein spurred her interest in conducting. When she was a child her parents, musicians themselves, took her to hear one of Bernstein's concerts for young people. Alsop decided right then that conducting was what she wanted to do when she grew up. Later, when she was a music student, Bernstein actually became her mentor, and many say Alsop has inherited his gift for imbuing audiences with a love of classical music.
She certainly has Bernstein's dedication and passion for sharing what she has learned. In Bernstein-esque fashion, she's been known to have the orchestra play a phrase and then stop while she explains how it fits into the whole piece Â- a technique that some listeners have found especially helpful in contemporary music, which can sometimes sound suspiciously like noise.
"It's like a foreign language Â- if you know a few phrases, you don't feel so at sea," Alsop says.
Critics and her employers approve of the technique.
"Audiences [here] were eating out of her hand, and there were loads of phone calls after that concert asking if she [planned to address] the audience again," says Anthony Brown, Bournemouth's director of marketing.
"What she has done for audiences can't be measured," adds music critic Marc Shulgold of Denver's Rocky Mountain News.
"Marin Alsop brings a freshness and clarity to the interpretation of music, a high level of musicianship, dynamic energy, and understanding of the piece at hand," says Yumi Hwang-Williams, concertmaster of the Colorado Symphony.
Though Alsop is sometimes pigeon-holed as a contemporary music specialist, her interests and expertise are actually quite broad.
"One of the things that is very impressive about her is that she has a very wide repertoire," says Geoffrey Norris, chief music critic of London's Daily Telegraph, "not just American music, which would be an easy thing to fall into."
She has a strong interest in contemporary music, though she is recognized in Europe for her excellence with the standard European repertoire. In the United States, she is seen as an expert in American music Â- which she has indeed championed.
But her accomplishments range from early music with original instruments to jazz (she has her own jazz band, Concordia) to the wildest new music by composers such as Christopher Rouse and John Adams.
Another stereotype she's shedding is that of being a "woman' conductor. "Marin is too good to be labeled a 'woman musician,' " Ms. Hwang-Williams says. "Music has no gender, no boundaries. What she brings is on a very high level. I wanted to work with her [because] I believe in her...."
Alsop has not let gender be an issue in her career. When she has been passed over for a position, she's simply gone back to work Â- harder Â- making no excuses.
Nonetheless, Hwang-Williams says, "She really [has] paved the road for women conductors and achieved a high status."
"How big a role I've played in [blazing a trail for other women] I'm not certain," Alsop says. "But I'm always very happy when young women [today] who are interested in the field think [being a woman is] a nonissue." Alsop likes teaching workshops for young musicians, both female and male, whenever she can. "If I can help you, I will," she says.
Simply through her own success she may be paving the way for other women.
"Orchestras need to be more proactive in hiring women conductors," says Joseph W. Polisi, president of The Julliard School in New York City. "Not because they are women, but because they are good. There is no need to compromise.
"And this is true for American conductors [both women and men] in general. American orchestras tend to look for their conductors in Europe or Japan."
What makes a great conductor is the depth of musical understanding he or she brings to the podium, Mr. Polisi says, adding that "Marin Alsop is a profound musician." (She received her master's degree at Julliard.)
Her rapport with both orchestras and audiences is part of her appeal Â- even part of her style. The Bournemouth musicians voted unanimously to hire her.
She also may be foreshadowing the end of the era of the conductor as tyrant. "Since Marin is a violinist and has extensive experience as a player, she has maintained a level of humility," Hwang-Williams says.
Alsop has been credited with taking the Colorado Symphony to new heights. "When the leadership of an orchestra improves, the morale of the players improves," Denver music critic Shulgold says.
"Really, my role is to interpret the composer's wishes and bring the message to the audience," Alsop explains. "I want to ... make the best music possible."
To prepare, she reads biographies on composers and learns about their thinking and what was happening around them.
"With Leonard Bernstein [as a composer], faith is a major issue Â- can we believe in humanity or will we be disappointed? With Beethoven, brotherhood and love would triumph over everything," she says.
"In his time, [Gustav] Mahler was revered for his conducting, but his music was discounted. All of those elements are important in understanding the music. It is important to me that my interpretation is not motivated by my experience, but my understanding of the composer's experience."
She also analyzes the piece itself: its structure, harmonies, how it moves from one place to another; its themes and how they are related. "I want to get under the notes and find and express the message," she says. "There is always a message."
Alsop is proud of her accomplishments in Colorado. But her phenomenal energy Â- so clearly expressed in her music, as many critics have noted Â- is pushing her on to greater things.
"I've fallen in love with the Bournemouth orchestra," she says. "It's an orchestra I feel a tremendous chemistry with and a genuine rapport."
Alsop's four-year contract with Bournemouth includes a six-CD recording deal, a major tour every year, and performances in nine concert halls.
"She obviously works the orchestra hard, and you can tell they are on the edge of their seats and working very hard for her," says Norris, the critic. "You can tell she had exerted her own interpretation on the orchestra.... She knows the scores inside and out. And the clarity of instrumental detail comes through.
"She is very dynamic but at the same time very sensitive," he adds. "I think her secret is the ability to communicate Â- with the orchestra and with the audiences as well.... And the product is very good Â- among the best musicmaking you are likely to hear."
The Buffalo Philharmonic (N.Y.)
The Santa Barbara Symphony (Calif.)
The Kansas City Symphony (Mo.)
formerly of the Dallas Symphony
The Maryland Symphony