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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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.