Marin Alsop is well known as the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but this weekend she will be conducting a different sort of production.
Alsop will lead the three-day Women of the World-Baltimore Festival gathering that is expected to draw thousands to Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and nearby venues. But music is far from the focus.
Although Alsop acknowledges that the festival might strike some as an unusual way to fill a concert hall, she says it is consistent with the symphony's larger goals.
"We have a strong commitment to be a resource for the community," she said. "Although it seems off mission, it is on mission."
It's the latest in a series of unconventional steps taken by the BSO to broaden its audience. In 2008, the symphony started OrchKids, an after-school program that provides musical instruments and meals to public school students. Two years later, it launched "Rusty Musicians" a training camp that gives amateur musicians a chance to play with the symphony.
But while those programs revolve around music, WOW-Baltimore will focus primarily on nonmusical subjects, from the serious to the humorous. More than 45 panels and workshops, and nearly 200 presenters, will address topics including human trafficking, "guerrilla knitting," and the philosophy and inspiration of food and wine.
"Baltimore, under Marin Alsop, is definitely at the forefront of a growing trend to connect to the world of ideas," said Judith Kurnick, vice president for strategic communications for the League of American Orchestras. "They certainly are pioneers."
Kurnick said a few orchestras are exploring ways to combine music and other subjects, such as a series in which the Cleveland Orchestra has been investigating links between "music and the brain." She said the league organizes a food drive called Feeding America in which 250 orchestras, including the BSO, collect food for the poor.
But Kurnick said she can't think of another American orchestra that has planned such an ambitious, nonmusic-oriented festival as a way to use its concert hall.
"That's a really important area that orchestras are exploring — allowing concert halls to be used in interesting ways," she said. Compared with a program about music and neurology, WOW-Baltimore "is more populist. It has the potential to reach a much broader segment of the population."
Modeled after a highly successful event held last year in Britain called WOW-London, and planned in partnership with London's Southbank Centre, WOW-Baltimore is a new festival "for and about women," designed to enable participants to explore a wide range of issues and celebrate achievements by women in fields ranging from science and business to politics and the arts.
To accommodate WOW-Baltimore, the Meyerhoff is being transformed into a temporary convention center or "town hall," with areas for a vendors' marketplace, dining, panel discussions, "speed" mentoring and live performances. Activities will spill over to the nearby Lyric Opera House, Theatre Project and the MedChi building on Cathedral Street. A fleet of women-operated food trucks will be stationed outside. More than 1,000 participants a day are expected.
Alsop said she got the idea for WOW-Baltimore after attending the Women of the World-London gathering that drew 7,000 people last March to the Southbank Centre, where she is an artist-in-residence. Alsop said she was so impressed that she proposed holding a similar festival in Baltimore. She also recruited the artistic director of the Southbank Centre and the founder of the London festival, Jude Kelly, to serve as co-artistic director of the Baltimore gathering.
"This is a place to share our stories," Alsop said of her vision for WOW-Baltimore. "It's an opportunity to have a wide-ranging discussion about subjects we don't often get to talk about ... from the almost-absurd to serious and egregious examples of inequality throughout the world."
Whatever their backgrounds, "women have a shared history," Alsop said. "There is a tremendous strength in numbers. ... I think everyone will have a different sense of what they want to take away" from the event.
Paul Meecham, president and chief executive officer for the BSO, said the cost of mounting WOW-Baltimore is about $100,000. The symphony has a $26 million annual budget.
He said the financial plan for the festival calls for all costs to be covered by event sponsors and ticket sales, so the symphony and its patrons will not be responsible for any part.
Meecham said the symphony board supported Alsop's idea because it keeps the symphony relevant and makes the Meyerhoff "a destination for cultural activities in general, not just a two-hour concert."
Alsop's decision to bring the WOW festival to Baltimore is a demonstration of the way she views her role with the BSO and the region, said Randi Vega, cultural affairs director for the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts.
"She has a different view of her job" from her predecessors, Vega said. In Alsop's mind, "her role is bigger than being a leader in the orchestra. She's a leader in the community. She has a different view of what it is to be a maestra. It's a different mind-set."
With an event such as WOW-Baltimore, Vega said, Alsop's "knocking down the walls of the Meyerhoff and letting the public in. She's establishing a different relationship between the audience and what goes on inside the building. She's looking at the Meyerhoff as not just a place for classical music, and WOW-Baltimore is an expression of that."