Question: What does it take to make a great female conductor?Skip to next paragraph
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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."