When the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented its 2006/2007 season a few weeks back, Ionarts had the chance to briefly speak to Maestra Alsop and ask her a few questions – an opportunity we naturally jumped at with delight. Marin Alsop, at a very vital half-century young, immediately comes across as uncomplicated, down-to-earth, and practical: a first – well: second – sign that she isn’t your usual (or at least stereotypical) conductor. And indeed, not fitting neatly into stereotypes has been a hallmark of her career. We asked about her experience with discrimination (positive or negative or none at all) in a workplace that is among the last patriarchal strongholds.
Alsop says that she has experienced “probably all of them… in some way”… but among musicians she never felt that being a woman made a difference one way or the other, and she has never felt any kind of prejudice. Nor did she find that administrations of orchestras treated her differently for being a woman – either as a novelty draw or as unacceptable for being a woman. If anything, for her it was battling societal preconceptions. “You know there is an archetypal image of what a maestro is – and it’s not an American woman from New York… it’s a foreign gentleman with an ascot. It’s a different kind of image.” To get there, her extraordinary drive in anything she did or does (academics, music) has helped her… but, as she relates with a smirk that is somewhere between coy and bored with the question, she doesn’t think that is related to gender, either… it’s just her. She grants that the novelty factor of a woman on the rostrum may have been an advantage in getting more publicity here and there – “certainly twenty years ago, [when] it was even more novel, [more than now].”
When we gush about her interpretations of contemporary, musically conservative or modern-Romantic Anglo composers from Adams to Zwilich, Glass to Torke, she assures us that there needn’t be fear that she will neglect this element in her programming, for fear of being pigeon-holed.
“Oh no… I don’t think so. I’m a champion for many contemporary composers including John Adams, Christopher Rouse, but also Britsh composers; James MacMillan, Thomas Adès – and other contemporary composers: Saariaho…. All these people whose music just speaks to me.”
BSO 2006-2007 Highlights (February 17, 2006)
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Announces Its 2006/2007 Season (February 16, 2006)
BSO Watch 2006 (February 15, 2006)
A Taste of the Future: Marin Alsop with the BSO (January 13, 2006)
Alsop and the BSO III (July 26, 2005)
Alsop After All... (July 19, 2005)
Marin Alsop in Baltimore... or Not? (July 18, 2005)
Hilary Hahn at Strathmore [with the BSO] (February 21, 2005)
“I generally try to put something contemporary, whether it is American or European… but the bulk of what I do is the standard repertoire. In New York I just conducted Brahms-1; that was the main work, the same, I think, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Philly… But I always try to put something interesting on the program along with that.” It fits well with that sentiment that a Dvořák cycle with the BSO is planned for Naxos.
Well, talking about Brahms, there was a last question the answer to which we had been looking forward much. Not an easy question – but how Maestra instinctively found one of the few good answers to it was impressive: “As a great conductor: can you, must you be able to identify your own weaknesses – or is this business one such that you can’t be a great conductor if you think you have any weaknesses?”
“Well, I think that as a great leader one has to recognize one’s weaknesses to a certain extent. I mean, great leaders surround themselves with people that have strengths that they don’t have. And I think it’s important whenever one is in a position of authority one has an responsibility to always try to improve one’s skill set.
I am always working on it – I am not sure I’d ever admit what my weaknesses are to you [Darn it – we were too transparent, once again!] – or to anyone else… maybe that’s the key, you know: It’s knowing one’s weaknesses and not discussing them publicly. But just trying to improve them constantly.”
Perhaps pleased by her answer, perhaps amused by a question that had a little zest to offer, she sees us off with a charming smile, mock-complaining to the BSO’s Vice President of Public Relation Laura Johnson that “He’s asking me hard questions.”
Nothing so hard as to even begin to dent Marin Alsop’s public persona reinforced by her no-nonsense personality, disarming dry humor, and experience. But at least we’ll have some time to come up with new ones until October!