How Musical Trailblazer Marin Alsop Became The 1st Female Conductor Of A Major US Orchestra

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She’s a different type of female music role model that we’re used to seeing, but she is one worth taking notice of! Marin Alson is the conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra since her appointment in 2007, and that made her the first woman to conduct a major US orchestra. The classical music world isn’t necessarily covered much in the mainstream press, but you can be assured it is a genre that is steeped in tradition (meaning sexism) and old attitudes that are still prevalent today.

Marin is not only breaking the glass ceiling in the US, but she is also considered one of the world’s leading conductors (not just “female conductors”).

In an interview with Al Jazeera she talks about how she not only broke the gender mold in the classical music world, but that her presence is also signalling how the genre is changing slowly.

She decided she was going to become a classical music conductor at the age of 9 because her parents were classical musicians.

“Classical music became quite extreme in that you’re not supposed to clap. You’re not supposed to cough. You’re not supposed to wear this. There’s so many things you’re not supposed to do but I always found that very off-putting,” she said. “Whereas my parents and our home life of classical music was all fun.”

Just like the inclusion of women in the industry in general, Marin believes “classical music should be about inclusion and accessibility for people.”

Being based in Baltimore she saw a huge divide in the representation of members in the orchestra and the city’s public citizens.

“Baltimore, like many big American cities, has some real challenges, particularly in this huge divide between the poor and the wealthy,” Alsop said. “That combined with the fact that the majority of the population is African-American and yet, in our orchestra and in most orchestras, there are very few African-American musicians. Now, why is that? And what can we do to impact that?”

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She decided to use $100,000 of her own grant money to create a program called Orchkids, a series of after-school music classes of all kinds of music taught in five public elementary schools, with 50 full- and part-time teachers every day in some of the roughest parts of Baltimore. The program started in 2008 with 30 kids. Today, there are 750. Alsop’s goal is to get to 83,000 kids in the program – the same number of kids in the Baltimore City Public Schools.

Her determination to change the status quo in classical music is evident by her success so far. In 2013 she became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the BBC Proms in the festival’s 118-year history, watched by upwards of 40 million people the world over. Seriously?!? 118 years?!?

And there have been male conductors who claim women shouldn’t necessarily be on the podium because they could be a “distraction” to the orchestra. Ah yes, there goes that familiar sentiment regurgitating the notion that women are only valued for their appearance, and if they happen to be beautiful but use their talent and brains, they should feel ashamed for being so damn pretty. It’s a ridiculous double standard, made all the more ridic because one of the man who said this was young Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko, who happens to be quite the good-looking specimen himself. So according to his own estimation, he shouldn’t be on the podium either. Bye Felicia!

To Vasily’s credit, he has acknowledged the idiocy of his words and paid homage to Marin: “I have the utmost respect for female conductors, for instance the extraordinary talented conductor Marin Alsop.” That’s right!

There has also been criticism that a lot of women soloist musicians are only picked because they are young, good-looking and have a sexy appearance. Marin, although being 56 and not interested in trying to keep up appearances, has a balanced view on this conundrum.

“I do see that being soloists, in the spotlight, there are different expectations about not just being successful but, if they’re women, stunningly attractive, too,” she told the Guardian. “There’s a big societal pressure, but it’s not as though these top soloists don’t have the power of veto. We can all say no. So at some level they must feel OK about it, and why not, if you look fabulous like that?”

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The other issue plaguing female musicians in the classical realm is the old work-life balance debate. For Marin the problem was more easily solved than some because her lesbian partner was the one to have their son, and Marin was able to continue working without taking too much time off.

“We’re progressing. But just at that moment when your career needs a push, you need to figure out, ‘Am I going to have a family?’ That’s a huge issue for so many women of course, and I have many friends who left it until their 40s – too late.”

Aside from sexist attitudes with at times threaten to push back the women who are making massive inroads, like Marin, she says it comes down to being given the opportunity to prove that you are just as capable as any man for the job, and cites an experience from her own journey.

“One of my early conducting experiences was a step-in – the conductor didn’t show up and someone said: ‘Go on Marin, you want to be a conductor,’ and I ran up on stage. As I stepped on to the podium one of the guys in the brass section said, ‘Oh man, it’s a girl.’ At the end of the week he said to me: ‘You’re really good. I never really noticed you were a girl.'”

“There is no logical reason to stop women from conducting. The baton isn’t heavy. It weighs about an ounce. No superhuman strength is required. Good musicianship is all that counts. As a society we have a lack of comfort in seeing women in these ultimate authority roles. Still none of the “big five” orchestras has had a female music director.”

If there is anyone who has the gusto to break through the gender barriers still remaining in the orchestra world, it is Marin Alsop. She relishes her role as an unofficial spokeswoman for females in the industry because what it comes down to first is opportunity, and second, representation. And lastly, don’t ever give up, because your experience and your story will be the inspiration for someone else to break down any barriers they face. In Marin’s case, her story sounds like music to our ears!

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  1. Pingback: Europe's First Black & Minority Ethnic Orchestra Disrupting The White-Dominated Classical Music Scene - GirlTalkHQ

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