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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.

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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.

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"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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