The Big Picture

When Marin Alsop conducts, she looks to tell a story. Her own musical journey follows a fascinating arc as well.

Volume 117, No. 11November, 2017

Bob Pawlo with Marissa Faltings

Photo: Adriane White

Marin Alsop, a member of Local 802 since 1973, is an inspiring and powerful music director who passionately believes that music has the power to change lives. As one of Leonard Bernstein’s best known pupils, she is recognized around the world for her vision, distinction, innovative approach to programming, and deep commitment to developing audiences of all ages. Her outstanding success as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has included bold initiatives that have contributed to the wider community and reached new audiences. In 2008 she launched “OrchKids,” which provides music education, instruments, meals and mentorship to the city’s neediest young people. With the BSO musicians she also started the BSO Academy and Rusty Musicians programs, which allow adult amateur musicians the chance to play alongside members of the orchestra under Alsop’s baton. “Baltimore is a great city,” Alsop says. “The orchestra is very special because they have a passion and a musicality that I can really connect with. I have great respect for them. It’s been an excellent partnership. I’m very, very happy there.”

Alsop has conducted the world’s major orchestras, including Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Filarmonica della Scala, Orchestre National de France, London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. In the U.S., she regularly conducts the Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago Symphony orchestras. This year, she is conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, and she has accepted a second residency at Aldeburgh’s Snape Maltings with the Britten-Pears Orchestra. In addition to all of these duties, Alsop has also been the music director of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra since 2011.

Alsop is the only conductor to ever win the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. She is also an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music and Royal Philharmonic Society, and was recently appointed director of graduate conducting at the Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute. She attended Juilliard and Yale University, which awarded her an honorary doctorate this year.

Her conducting career was launched in 1989, when she became the first woman to be awarded the Koussevitzky conducting prize from Tanglewood.

Local 802’s Bob Pawlo recently sat down with Marin Alsop to learn more about her musical journey. For this interview, Bob was joined by Local 802 member Marissa Faltings, who was an intern at Local 802 this past summer and is now a violin student at SUNY Potsdam.

Bob Pawlo: I always like to begin with a deceptively simple question. How and when did your remarkable journey in music begin?

Marin Alsop: My parents were both professional musicians and Local 802 members. I think they set out to give birth to a pianist – and that’s why I was born! I can remember my parents practicing every day. I heard music as I was going to sleep at night and when I woke up in the morning. Music was just kind of like air in our house. It was what we breathed and what we lived. The first music I remember falling in love with was the classic 1960 recording of the New York Philharmonic performing “Peter and the Wolf,” which was both conducted and narrated by Leonard Bernstein. By the time I was three, I was already learning piano, and then I started violin when I was five or six. When I was seven, I got into the Juilliard pre-college program on violin, and I fell in love with the sound of the orchestra. A few years later, my dad took me to a Leonard Bernstein Young People’s Concert. I was sitting very close, and when he started conducting, I thought, “Oh, I have to do that. That’s what I really want to do.” I leaned over to my dad and said, “Dad, I want to be the conductor.”

Marin Alsop with her father Lamar (top) and mother Ruth (above). Both were professional musicians and members of Local 802.

Bob Pawlo: Little did he know, right?

Marin Alsop: Yeah, I never really changed my mind since then! But actually, my violin teacher at Juilliard told me that I was too young to be a conductor, and also that girls weren’t conductors. And my teacher who told me this was a woman! So that was discouraging, but my parents’ reaction was fantastic. First they were angry. Then my mom said, “Oh, that’s ridiculous. You can do anything you want to do.” Then, my dad brought me a present the next morning at breakfast – a box of conductor’s batons! They were fantastically supportive of anything I wanted to do – as long as it was in music. When I was 16, I was accepted to Yale as an undergraduate. But instead of being overjoyed, I think they were the only parents in history who couldn’t understand why I would want to go Yale instead of Juilliard. Why study at Yale when I could study more music at Juilliard? But they were right: I only attended Yale for two years, and then I transferred back to Juilliard when I was 18. By then, I was constantly studying scores. I was constantly trying to understand what conductors were doing and what was going on. I would ask various conductors for a lesson. One of my first gigs when I was in my early 20s was the Mostly Mozart Festival, and it was so fantastic because I could work under a different conductor every week. I asked them all for lessons, and they were all extremely generous, and that’s when I sort of started getting my feet wet.

Bob Pawlo: What were some of the skills you learned early on that later made your career so diverse and so successful?

Marin Alsop: Well, I actually think that not having many opportunities can often be a real stimulator. If you have only one opportunity in a blue moon, you really try to maximize it. I appreciated and valued every single opportunity I had and tried to make the most out of them. I also realized early on that you have to be your own teacher – especially in conducting – and that’s a great life lesson. If you can be curious about yourself, it enables you to have a lifetime of both growth and realism. I also learned that the people who are most important in developing your art are usually your friends. This is also how people get hired. For example, I had started a jazz string band called String Fever. When I finally formed my own orchestra, I invited all of my String Fever members to play in this new orchestra. I built a lot of big ensembles with the people whom I admired. And that’s something that stuck with me my whole career. If you surround yourself with great musicians and great people, I think success is inevitable. You can’t just be a great musician and a bad person; you have to have both.

Bob Pawlo: What was your actual first conducting experience?

Marin Alsop: There was a show in New Jersey with the great jazz singer Mel Tormé and pianist Carmen Cavallaro. The piece was Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and they had a band and strings backing them up. I was on the gig, and the conductor didn’t show up, and of course, all of my friends knew that I wanted to be a conductor, so they said, “Oh, Marin can do it; Marin can do it!” So I stepped up and conducted. It was a fantastic experience, and it was my friends who had encouraged me, so it was very special.

Bob Pawlo: Was this while you were still at Juilliard?

Marin Alsop: Yes. And remember that I wasn’t a conducting major. Actually, I never attended any school for conducting. I earned a master’s degree in violin performance, and then when I graduated, I started my own orchestra called Concordia.

Bob Pawlo: What was it like running your own group?

Marin Alsop: Oh, it was fantastic. Not only did I learn more about conducting, but I also learned how to build an orchestra, how to form a board of directors, how to fundraise, what goes into marketing, how you ticket a hall. I also tried to create an orchestra with a repertoire that stood out. The market was already glutted with ensembles in Manhattan. I loved the intersection of jazz and classical, so I programmed Gershwin and Bernstein. I also loved the music of the jazz pianist James P. Johnson, and I set out to solve a mystery. I once read that Johnson had written music for orchestra, but it was lost. So my friend Leslie Stifelman and I tracked down his surviving relatives, flew out to California and were able to recover the manuscripts. We recorded the music and I’m thrilled that it’s now available for all orchestras to perform!

Marin Alsop with Leonard Bernstein. Photo: Walter Scott

Marissa Faltings: How did your studies on violin prepare you to be a conductor?

Marin Alsop: I think the discipline and rigor of studying violin at Juilliard and being a very serious violinist impacted everything I did. Being a musician is a constant striving, so you have to motivate yourself. You have to practice, you have to be thinking all the time, and I think all the skills I learned really came in handy when I was pursuing this dream of becoming a conductor. Also, the fact that I had studied such a wide range of music was very helpful, because, as a conductor, you don’t just stand up and conduct the Mahler symphony and that’s the end of it. You have to do pops shows; you have to do children’s concerts. You have to be entrepreneurial and creative, and all my experience as a violinist really helped me in that way, particularly being a violinist who also played some jazz.

Marissa Faltings: As a string player, did you find yourself either programming very string-heavy pieces to play in concerts or focusing more on string players during rehearsals?

Marin Alsop: Maybe initially I did. I’m sure I did. But what I realized early on is that I can speak to wind players in string terms. If I tell my brass players, “Look, can you do more ‘downbows’ there,” they know what I mean: I want separation between the notes. Or if I’m saying, “Winds, I want a sound that’s like just using one bow hair; can you translate that?” I will often use that kind of terminology with winds and brass, and I’ve always loved percussion and been curious about it, so I don’t think I’ve been a monochromatic conductor in that I’ve focused only on strings. Maybe I’m partial to the strings, but I try not to show that.

Bob Pawlo: How did you meet Leonard Bernstein?

Marin Alsop: I followed him very, very closely, because I was insane for him. I was crazy for the guy. He was my hero and my idol. I admired him from a distance, from afar, and I had some opportunities to meet him earlier in my life. My dad played violin on the famous 1984 recording of “West Side Story” that Bernstein did with the tenor José Carreras, and I went to those sessions with my dad, but I didn’t want to meet Bernstein then; I was terrified. It was like having a first crush on someone you were afraid to talk to.

Bob Pawlo: If I remember right, Mr. Carreras was also terrified in those sessions.

Marin Alsop: Yeah, I wasn’t the only one, and of course, as it went on, I was very pleased that I hadn’t gotten to meet him, because I was scared of him. But I first worked with him professionally at a festival in Germany in 1987. I was one of many conductors, so I only got to know him a little bit. But a year later, I won the Leonard Bernstein conducting fellowship to Tanglewood, which meant I got to work directly with Bernstein. In fact, I got to conduct a concert with him on his 70th birthday! I conducted the Roy Harris Third Symphony, a piece that Bernstein himself made famous. He loved that piece and taught it to me in a two-hour conducting lesson that I’ll never forget. It was packed with journalists and musicians and conductors, and I don’t even remember anybody being there except him. He was so wonderful. At the end of the class, he handed me the score and told me I could take it home. It was a very immediate bond that we had, and I stayed extremely close to him for the next two years until his death in 1990. When I would come to New York, I would visit with him at his apartment at the Dakota. He came to a couple of my concerts, and then I was invited to study with him again at Tanglewood. That time, we did Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler,” which was amazing. So it was a short and intense relationship, but it was very special and life-changing for me. Shortly before he died, I went to Japan with Bernstein to open the Pacific Music Festival. I conducted several concerts with him and felt very connected to him.

Marin Alsop with Leonard Bernstein. Photo: Walter Scott

Bob Pawlo: I always felt when hearing Leonard Bernstein that he was on a journey in every concert. The music was taking you somewhere, telling a story.

Marin Alsop: That was the big takeaway that I got. There’s an important narrative to every musical piece, and that’s the responsibility of the conductor. And as conductor, your responsibility is to the composer, not yourself. The bigger responsibility is to the story. You have to carry the narrative. Whether one agrees with the story or not, you can’t say that Leonard Bernstein didn’t have a story for every piece.

Marissa Faltings: You were the first woman to be awarded the Koussevitzky conducting prize, which is presented by Tanglewood. What was that like?

Marin Alsop: That made me feel great. The wonderful thing about Tanglewood and everyone there is how supportive they were. I also had this powerful feeling of being accepted by this incredible established institution, because everything I had done up until then felt like it was all of my own making. This was my first real imprimatur from a respected and renowned and revered institution with incredible conductors. Everybody was phenomenal, so it was a great honor to receive that award.

Marissa Faltings: How do you think women composers can become more recognized?

Marin Alsop: For composers, it’s essential that they have conductors who champion their work. Composers need to connect themselves to conductors who believe in them and will promote what they’re doing. I think a lot of things in life are related to mentoring and having the right mentors and the right people to trust for advice. In 2002, I started a fellowship for women conductors called the Taki Concordia Fellowship. It enabled me to see firsthand how mentoring can be transformational. I would enthusiastically say to everyone: be open to being a mentor. Also, there is the basic fact that music directors should program more music by women composers. I try to do that as well.

Marissa Faltings: Why do you believe women conductors have to fight harder for acceptance in roles of authority?

Marin Alsop: That’s a larger societal question about why women have to work in different ways to be accepted in roles that represent the ultimate authority figure, whether it’s a conductor, whether it’s president of the United States, whether it’s CEO of a company, or the head of a theatre. It’s more about the way society perceives women in leadership roles than the reality of the particular business. But in conducting it’s a little trickier, because it’s all about body language, and women’s gestures are interpreted differently from men’s gestures. I can do the same gesture as a man, but the reaction is not the same from the outer world. The thing would be to “de-genderize” the field so it becomes about music and not about whether you’re a woman or a man. I think classical music is a microcosm of much broader issues in our society and in our world.

Marissa Faltings: You were included in the Guardian’s “Top 100 Women” – and you were the only classical musician on the list. How do you feel about that, and how do you think more women can get involved in classical music?

Marin Alsop: If I’m not part of changing the landscape, then I’m really falling down on my responsibility. I think it’s starting to change due to the advocacy of myself and many others of us – including men who help create opportunities for talented young women in the field. I think it’s also important for all of us to be open to women in leadership roles within the orchestra that are not typically held by women, like concertmaster or principal trumpet, for example. We need to be advocates on every level.

Marissa Faltings: Is there any advice you would want to give to young women who want to get into conducting or performance?

Marin Alsop: The trick is to persevere, work super hard, and don’t get discouraged. It’s a challenging field, male or female. Try to stay positive, and maximize every opportunity you have. As a conductor, remember that without the musicians, we don’t make any noise. Always respect the musicians. And do your best.

Bob Pawlo: What’s it like to stand in front of the greatest symphonies in the world? What’s going through your mind as you ascend the podium and give the downbeat?

Marin Alsop: I’m just trying to focus on the architecture of the piece and the quality of sound at the start. I try to visualize the perfect sound for the opening. I try to hear the sound in my head and feel it in my hands. It’s always humbling. It feels like a great privilege, and one that I appreciate tremendously. I also feel a great responsibility to the composer. That’s always been my goal: to do justice on behalf of the composer. The role of the conductor is to be the messenger for the composer. I’ve been very fortunate to work with incredible musicians and great orchestras.

Bob Pawlo: What’s your process in learning a brand-new work – a contemporary work?

Marin Alsop: The great advantage to new music is that usually the composers are still alive, so you can talk to them. After analyzing and getting to know the score and trying to understand what the narrative is behind the piece, I usually have a conversation with the composer and try to get inside his or her motivation for writing the piece. I find this very inspiring to be able to talk directly to the creators, because so much of my time is spent trying to commune with people who have been dead for a couple of hundred years. After that, it’s the same process as it is for a Beethoven symphony. It’s trying to find that narrative that will motivate the musicians and touch the audience. I always like learning new pieces, but I also like going back and reviewing a piece and finding another dimension to it or another side or a new angle.

Bob Pawlo: Is there anything you’d like to say in closing to your fellow Local 802 members?

Marin Alsop: I share with my fellow musicians this great joy of doing what we love. I think sometimes we forget about that in the daily grind. But there aren’t many people on the planet who can say that they are in love with their job. I feel privileged to be a musician and privileged to be a member of Local 802. We’re all in this together, and that’s the reality.