History-making female conductor Alsop wields baton for equality

US conductor Marin Alsop leading the performance on stage during the last night of the Proms at The Royal Albert Hall in west London in 2015. (AFP pic)

The first woman to lead a major US orchestra, Marin Alsop believes that Western classical music — long seen as a stuffy, elitist club — can be “a great equaliser” between people of all backgrounds.

“Every single human being can access classical music. If you think you can’t, it’s only because you have been told that by someone who didn’t know anything,” Alsop told AFP in an interview on the sidelines of the Hong Kong Arts Festival, where she was conducting the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra.

The 62-year-old American is herself no stranger to such naysayers.

She was nine years old when she watched the celebrated American composer Leonard Bernstein conduct an orchestra and decided that she too would command the stage one day, only to be told by her violin teacher that “girls don’t do that”.

For the young girl who had grown up watching her mother play the cello, it was her first brush with gender discrimination.

Born into a musical family — her father played the violin — Alsop took up her first instrument when she was just two years old, joining an orchestra at age seven.

She credits her “entirely supportive” parents and her own “stubborn” streak for helping her persevere in her push to wield the baton. Her determination and talent eventually won the budding conductor the attention of Bernstein himself, who took her under his wing.

Making history

After years of touring with orchestras in the US and the UK, Alsop made history in 2007 when she became the first female music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO).

More accolades followed.

In 2013, she became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, a highlight of Britain’s cultural calendar. Later this year, Alsop will add another first to her resume when she takes over as music director of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.

“I am always shocked that there can still be firsts for women in the 21st century… I find that quite pathetic,” she says.

Nonetheless, she acknowledges that “the great thing about being the first … is that it provides you a platform and an opportunity to try to open doors for other people”.

Despite Alsop’s success, the classical music world has been slow to embrace and nurture the talent of female conductors.

According to Britain’s Royal Philharmonic Society, only 5.5% of the 371 conductors represented by British agents are female.

Eager to see more women blaze trails of their own, Alsop founded the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship in 2002, offering guidance and mentoring to female conductors.

As the #MeToo movement sweeps the world of classical music, including hallowed institutions like the Metropolitan Opera and the BSO, Alsop is scathing about the abuses of power, calling them “the worst-kept secrets in classical music”.

“I hope that the younger generations (of men) are more educated, more sensitive or at least perhaps, a little more scared,” she says.

Find their voice

A high-profile career leading three orchestras across three continents notwithstanding, Alsop hopes her ongoing efforts to widen access to the world of classical music will prove her strongest legacy.

When she took over the BSO in 2007, she was astonished to discover that while African-Americans made up more than 60% of Baltimore’s population, the orchestra featured only one African-American musician — a cellist.

The disparity prompted her to set up a programme called OrchKids, providing free musical education, instruments, meals and mentoring to 30 African-American youngsters. A decade on, its reach has expanded to 1,300 children.

Describing the first intake of students, who are now graduating from the programme, Alsop says, “They have been able to find their voice. They have been able to express themselves. They have been able to become confident leaders”.

“When you suddenly find yourself playing the violin in front of an audience when you never expected to do that … you can start to see yourself doing so many things,” she says.

“They have been able to envision a world for themselves that’s filled with possibility”.