Can Marin Alsop shatter another glass ceiling?

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Can Marin Alsop shatter another glass ceiling?
The conductor Marin Alsop with the composer John Adams, left, at a party after the premiere of Adams’ “El Nino” at the Metropolitan Opera, in New York, April 23, 2024. Alsop, the first female conductor to lead a top American orchestra, wants to take another step up. (Nina Westervelt/The New York Times)

by Zachary Woolfe

BALTIMORE.- Marin Alsop’s conducting students were taking turns on the podium recently in a rehearsal room at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore. They waved their batons in front of an imaginary orchestra, practicing Igor Stravinsky’s notoriously complex “The Rite of Spring.”

Some conductors teach in poetry: what a piece means, how a certain sound should feel. Alsop, who spent untold hours at Meyerhoff Hall during her 14 years as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, a tenure that ended in 2021, teaches in technical, tangible details.

In a measure with 11 beats, she suggested using the last as a pickup to the following bar, to give the players an extra bit of clarity. She flagged trouble spots: a transition that was “usually too loud, too fast, too soon,” and a moment when the winds tend to come in just after the strings, rather than in unison.

“You’re not accompanying,” she told a rising maestro who seemed to be giving an invisible musician too much leeway. “You’re in charge.”

At 67, Alsop is, in many ways, in charge. Last month, she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, conducting a new production of John Adams’ “El Niño.” Next season, she will lead the Berlin Philharmonic, perhaps the world’s preeminent orchestra, for the first time.

She recently recorded Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with her ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra at the storied Musikverein, an experience that brought Leonard Bernstein, one of her mentors, to mind.

“I’m standing there thinking, ‘I’m recording Mahler Nine where Lenny stood, where Mahler stood,’” she said backstage after a rehearsal in Baltimore. “It doesn’t get better than that.”

And yet something is missing as Alsop looks toward the next chapter of her already groundbreaking career: another American orchestra. When she became the Baltimore Symphony’s music director, in 2007, she was the first woman to lead one of the country’s 25 largest orchestras. (There is still only one woman in that group: Nathalie Stutzmann at the Atlanta Symphony.)

Alsop hoped she would continue her steady rise and take on one of the handful of the most venerable, resource-rich American ensembles, like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the New York or Los Angeles philharmonics. Though nothing has worked out, she is still hungry for another chance at a directorship.

“I love guesting,” she said. “But really, it pales for me in comparison with being able to build something in a community. That’s really what I love.”

At a time when orchestras are eager to connect with a broader swath of their communities, Alsop’s struggle to score a position at the very top of the field attests to the persistent lack of both Americans and women on the country’s most prestigious podiums.

“To me, it’s a great pity,” said David Foster, Alsop’s longtime manager, now president emeritus of Opus 3 Artists. “Because she’s about as qualified to be a music director in North America in the early years of the 21st century as just about anyone on Earth.”

Born in 1956 to two professional string players in New York, Alsop quickly embraced the violin. But when she was still a child, her father took her to one of Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts at the New York Philharmonic, and conducting became her dream.

It was, from the beginning, a tough road for a woman: Alsop earned two violin degrees from the Juilliard School, but was rejected three times by the school’s conducting program. She had to form her own groups — String Fever, a small ensemble that did arrangements of swing numbers, and Concordia, which branched into jazz crossover — to get podium experience.

But Bernstein’s mentorship in the late 1980s helped as she began to get hired at small orchestras in the 1990s. Her long-term leadership of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California burnished her new-music credentials. In 2002, she founded a fellowship program for female conductors, which has flourished. (That is one of several details of her life borrowed, without her knowledge or permission, for Cate Blanchett’s toxically imperious maestro character in the 2022 film “Tár.”)

In Baltimore, the beginning of her tenure was rocky, with some players criticizing her as a lightweight whose appointment had been forced on them by the orchestra’s administration — a reaction that might have had something to do with her being a woman, and a lesbian.

But she stood her ground and won the musicians over. When she returns to the city now, it’s as a conquering, grinning hero. A few weeks ago, some in the crowd stood and cheered when she entered at the beginning of a concert.

At the end, when she casually walked onstage to grab her score off the podium as the audience was leaving, it set off another wave of applause. Speaking to the audience before Charles Ives’ Second Symphony, as she and the players gave glimpses of some of the old American tunes folded into the piece’s textures, she was charming, amusing, intelligent.

She founded OrchKids, a music education program for disadvantaged Baltimore children that has continued to be one of the field’s most inspiring success stories. She still teaches at the Peabody Institute, part of Johns Hopkins University, and she and her partner, Kristin Jurkscheit, still live in the city. Members of the Baltimore Symphony use her parents’ instruments and bows, which she donated to the orchestra after they died; the piano that accompanied her students in their “Rite of Spring” session was once owned by her family.

“I really believe that orchestras are civic institutions,” she said. “To be relevant, the leader has to commit to the community in a way that is profound.”

No one could say that Alsop doesn’t commit in a profound way. In Baltimore, she did everything you’re supposed to do as a modern-day music director.

“She’s so driven,” said Deborah Borda, most recently the CEO of the New York Philharmonic. “She’s so smart. She’s in the prime of her conducting life. I don’t have a crystal ball, but she is in the prime of her career.”

Yet that career turned a bit from America. Alsop has long had success in Britain, and has led the Last Night of the Proms, the widely televised culmination of the BBC’s signature summer festival, three times since 2013. Around then, she also got an orchestra in Sao Paulo. She added the Vienna Radio Symphony in 2019, and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra is newly under her baton.

“Most of my efforts these days are in Europe,” she said, “and I find a different attitude among the orchestras there. I wouldn’t say it’s looseness, but there’s more flexibility.”

She has sometimes found American administrators less receptive to her ambitions for the institutions she’s part of. “I can be a lot because I have a lot of thoughts and I have a lot of ideas,” she said. “And ideas are sometimes interpreted as more work.”

“One of the reasons I took the position in Poland,” she added, “is that the woman who runs the orchestra and hall is brilliant. She’s a thinker, and we can sit down and talk about these ideas, and I love it.”

But some of those contracts abroad have been sunsetting, and it may be that the pendulum is swinging back toward this side of the Atlantic for her. At the Ravinia Festival, the Chicago Symphony’s summer home, where she became chief conductor and curator in 2020, she has the scope to conduct a broad range of music, as well as leading education and mentoring efforts.

“She’s got an uncanny ability to listen, and humility and adaptability,” said Jeffrey Haydon, the festival’s president and CEO, adding that Alsop is blessedly free of the need to be the star of every event: “She’s always aware of whether it’s better for her to support the moment, or lead the moment, or be the moment. Many artists have to be the moment, and that’s it. She can do that — she has the gravitas and ability to do that — but that’s not her default.”

In January, the Philadelphia Orchestra announced that she would be its next principal guest conductor, taking over from Stutzmann. Alsop’s is a substantive position, both in Philadelphia and on tour, but it is a supporting role nevertheless.

As she searches for an American directorship, among the problems is that there simply aren’t very many open jobs at the level she is seeking. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra are about it at the moment.

“It would make perfect sense for her to have another orchestra,” said Foster, her old manager. “But there aren’t that many that would be appropriate. The air is thinner as you go higher.”

And while Alsop showed that it was possible to be a female music director of one of the country’s largest orchestras, she now faces another glass ceiling as a woman who is no longer young.

“There’s a lot more ageism for women,” she said. “So that’s one of my new flags: fighting for mature women, that they be given the same time and the same opportunities and the same consideration.”

There is also divergence in opinions about her music-making. Some observers and players find her solid but uninspired; some adore her. Foster said there were “loads” of jobs they had hoped for but didn’t get, and that selecting a music director is “partly based on chemistry.”

“What happens on the podium is what counts,” he added. “And there, I think that she is more relaxed and happier. Because she’s been conducting better and better orchestras more of the time, she’s prepared to let musicians play more. When you’re young and have a young orchestra, not everybody knows so much, so you have to conduct a lot. In that way, I think she’s become a better conductor.”

Alsop is prominent enough to be the subject of a documentary, “The Conductor,” that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2021. Yet orchestras and opera companies can be surprisingly siloed in terms of who they ask (and re-ask) to appear, and opinions formed decades ago can be persistent.

“It was my idea to ask her to do the Met,” John Adams said of the new production of his “El Niño.” “It’s funny: I don’t think Peter Gelb” — the company’s general manager — “would have thought of it, but the moment I mentioned it, he said, ‘Of course.’ Marin has so often not been on the radar, in part because she has such a humble, generous, even self-effacing personality, which is not the usual job description.”

Alsop said, with a laugh: “Every time Peter Gelb introduces me, it’s ‘Here’s Marin Alsop, making her long overdue debut.’ And it makes me feel like people think I’ve been on a boat on the ocean somewhere. I’ve been here, you know?”

“I hope I’ll have the platform to be able to really use my curiosity and my commitment, because I have a lot of that, to be helpful to another American orchestra,” she added. “I don’t know if it will happen. But I would love to do that, because that’s what I enjoy the most.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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