When Marin Alsop was a young girl, she told her violin teacher she wanted to become a conductor. “Girls can’t do that,” her teacher replied. After recounting what had happened to her parents, her father went out and returned with a box filled with batons. "It was his way of saying, you can do anything you want — we'll support you,” Alsop reflected.
At 65 years of age, Marin Alsop is now one of the world’s top conductors, although still one of the few who are women. It was in 2007 when she became the first woman to conduct a major American orchestra. The second to do so, French conductor Nathalie Stutzmann, was only appointed this year.
Born in New York City to parents who were professional musicians, Alsop grew up in the world of classical music. She started playing piano at the age of 3, violin at 6, and enrolled in Julliard at 7. When she was 9, after watching celebrated conductor Leonard Bernstein at a Young People’s Concert, she knew exactly what she wanted to do.
Enamored by Bernstein’s enthusiasm and encouraged by her parents, Alsop applied to the conducting program at Julliard several times. Getting rejection letter after rejection letter, she decided instead to call some friends and start her own orchestra, which she named the Concordia Chamber Orchestra.
“I was really devastated because it felt that everywhere I turned, every door was just closed. And that's what really prompted me to say, well, if every door is closed, I just have to build my own house,” she observed.
After winning the Koussevitzky Prize in 1989 at the Tanglewood Music Centre, Alsop met her idol, who would later become her mentor, Leonard Bernstein. Over the next decade, she conducted several orchestras in her home country — Colorado, Virginia, Oregon and Missouri — before working abroad in Brazil and the United Kingdom. In 2005, she became the first conductor ever to win the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “Genius Grant.”
In 2002, noticing the prevalent lack of women in conductor positions, Alsop started a fellowship for female conductors, the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship. “Conducting becomes a microcosm of a bigger world — why aren't there more women leaders?” she declared, reflecting on the lack of Gender Equality, one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
With a career on the rise, Alsop was finally selected to conduct one of the top orchestras in the United States, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. However, her appointment wasn’t entirely well received. Several musicians protested the appointment of a woman through anonymous letters. Devastated by the reaction, Alsop decided to speak directly to the orchestra. After a show of support from the head of the committee, she stayed and ended up bringing enormous success. She held the position for 14 years.
During her time there she started OrchKids, an outreach program aimed at children from underrepresented communities in Baltimore, which started with 30 kids and now serves over 2,000. “We must reach out to various groups, to gain diversity, so that communities feel engaged and reflected,” she declared, underlining the importance of inclusivity in the pursuit of Sustainable Cities and Communities.
Currently appointed as the principal conductor of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra — another first for a woman — Alsop also enjoys her family life with her partner, horn player Kristin Jurkscheit, and their son.
“Change is slow, and in order to effect change you have to be intentional and unrelenting. And I think those are my two biggest qualities!” Alsop says — a reminder that the fight for equality happens on all fronts, and however strenuous and frustrating it can be, we must simply persist.
Find out more about Marin Alsop on her website, and check out the new documentary about her, The Conductor.