Marin Alsop breaks the glass baton

The first woman to head a major US symphony wants to make the music hall a welcoming place, not an austere temple of culture.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Tomorrow Marin Alsop will shatter the glass baton. As she steps onto the podium for her inaugural concert as Music Director and Principal Conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO), Ms. Alsop becomes the first woman to assume the leadership of a major American symphony. The baton she will grasp will be a simple wooden one, worn and slightly crooked, handcrafted by her father.

It is the same type of baton her father made for her when she was just a girl and, after attending one of Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts in New York, decided she wanted to grow up to be an orchestra conductor. Her music teacher thought this was ridiculous: Girls don't become orchestra conductors. Marin was not discouraged. Her parents, both professional musicians, encouraged her by giving her a set of homemade batons. Her father has made all of her batons ever since, and with them she has conducted the great orchestras of the world.

But smashing through gender barriers is only one of the ways Maestro Alsop is trying to rethink and rejuvenate the symphony orchestra in the 21st century. Her other plans are more radical. She aspires to make symphony halls welcoming places, not austere temples of culture where only the cognoscenti dare enter. "It's all about creating a sense of community," she says. "To give a feeling of connection and relevance."

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And she wants to use new technologies to carry the music beyond the hall and into people's ear buds: Her inaugural concert on Thursday will be broadcast live on XM satellite radio, and an audio pod cast of Alsop in rehearsal with the orchestra will be available on iTunes. She is also making video webcast commentaries to supplement the program notes for her concerts.

Here in Baltimore, where the well-respected orchestra spent years mired in debt, playing to half-empty houses, Alsop's arrival (though at first controversial) has sparked excitement and a resurgence. New subscriber sales are up 400 percent, aided by a $1 million corporate gift, which cut ticket prices to $25. Enthusiastic audiences have greeted her preview concerts with the kind of lusty cheering once reserved for hometown heroes like the Orioles' Cal Ripken Jr.

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Alsop is a slender ball of focused energy on the podium: bouncing, crouching, jumping, occasionally airborne in her musical zeal. Her arms pump and point and sweep in bold but precise gestures, gestures she has carefully honed to appear "gender neutral" – strong and clean but not fussy. But beyond her skill as a conductor ("Marin Alsop is one of the finest conductors on the planet," according to one smitten British critic), she has won acclaim for connecting with audiences and conveying complex musical concepts with a dash of humor and pizazz.

She talks to her audience, swiveling around on the podium and leaning over the rail to explain the composition about to be played. She creates programs that give a new spin to the classic repertoire (modernist composer John Adams will give his interpretation of Beethoven's 7th Symphony when he conducts next month) and tries to build an audience for contemporary music by inviting prominent composers to discuss their music in public "conversations."

"Everything in life is about personal relationships – including the way one feels about music," she says. "I want to create as many opportunities for people to have that 'aha' moment – give people the chance to really connect with the composers."

Her own signature style is to climb down from the podium after a concert, pull up a chair, and answer questions from the audience. Like her beloved mentor Bernstein, Alsop has fashioned herself into a musical ambassador. Elitists may be appalled, but audiences adore her.

Her innovative approaches earned her a MacArthur Foundation "genius award" in 2005 and an invitation to share her opinions with world leaders at the 2006 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. She also has a regular gig as commentator on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Saturday show, breezily chatting about the lives of composers and symphonies with host Scott Simon.

"Musicians, like actors and writers, can be maddeningly inarticulate about what they do – because they do it, not talk about it," says Mr. Simon. "Marin is that rare exception. She has such a lucid, human understanding of music that she can explain something the way that others might tell you about certain items on the wall of their living room."

Alsop's journey with the Baltimore Symphony began on a shrill note. When her appointment was announced in the summer of 2005, she was greeted by an unexpected – and very public – rejection from the musicians. The players' relations with the BSO management had been sour for some time, and they staged a revolt over the selection process. Alsop got caught in the crossfire. She was stunned and hurt. Friends advised her to walk away, but that's not her style. She also had to consider how her actions might affect the next woman to be offered the baton of an important orchestra.

Instead, Alsop called for a private meeting with the orchestra. She flew to Baltimore, walked into rehearsal, and presented her vision for the future. The wary musicians were intrigued by her ambitious plans to reinvigorate the BSO. She emerged from the meeting convinced she could make the relationship work.

In the two years since, when she's been the music-director designate, Alsop has built a good working rapport with the orchestra. "I feel a chemistry with the musicians," she says. "But chemistry is only one small part. I have a lot of responsibilities to them now – not the least of which is to really promote and advocate for them as an orchestra, and to support them, and to demand of them. It's almost like a parent."

The BSO musicians find their new maestro's energy and enthusiasm contagious: Rehearsals are intense but punctuated by laughter. The players are especially pleased to be in the recording studio again – the BSO had not issued new recordings in almost a decade. Their first CD with Alsop hit the top of the Billboard Classical Music charts when it was released a few weeks ago.

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Despite her initial awkwardness with the musicians, the people of Baltimore embraced Alsop without hesitation. They were charmed by her down-to-earth manner. The morning the box office opened for this season, hundreds of people lined up to buy tickets. Alsop joined them on line, serving doughnuts to sweeten the wait.

That chemistry was evident, too, during a preseason concert earlier this month. Alsop brought community arts groups onto the stage to perform with the orchestra, including a children's chorus and a flamenco dance troupe, a university dragon dancing group, and an inner-city high-school drum corps. "What I like is that they're willing to entertain real visionary concepts about what does the orchestra mean," she says of the BSO management, board, and musicians. "We talk about philosophy – what kind of impact can we make, what kind of contribution can we make to the Baltimore community."

Alsop also wants to bring music into the city's impoverished school system. "I think art has the capacity to bring people together – maybe I'm completely naive, but it I think it can completely change the world in some way," she says.

Alsop has positioned herself to make a difference in the world of music, in ways both profound and subtle. "When our four-year-old daughter hears music and starts 'conducting' with a pencil or a pipe cleaner," says NPR's Simon, "we call her "Maestro Marin."

Give that girl a baton.

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