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BSO music director Marin Alsop to step down amid questions over symphony’s future

After 14 years presiding over the podium for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop is stepping down during a critical junction in the organization’s history.

Alsop, 63, will put down her baton as the orchestra’s music director when her contract expires Aug. 31, 2021, the organization announced Wednesday. She will then assume the title of music director laureate and founder of OrchKids, the BSO’s music program for Baltimore youth.

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The orchestra will conduct an international search for Alsop’s replacement, but Peter Kjome, the BSO’s president and CEO, said the board of directors doesn’t expect to name a successor before the renowned conductor relinquishes her music director role.

Alsop was rehearsing Wednesday in London and declined to comment about her motives or her plans. But in a news release, she said: “The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is one of the world’s great orchestras and I have been proud to have served as its artistic leader for the past 14 years."

The announcement of Alsop’s eventual departure comes just two days after the BSO rolled out a six-year plan designed to restore the orchestra to fiscal solvency after $16 million in losses accumulated over more than a decade. The organization must persuade audience members, donors — and critically, Maryland state legislators and Gov. Larry Hogan — to provide the millions of dollars of additional funding needed for the turnaround effort.

Kjome is scheduled to appear before the General Assembly this week to attempt to persuade legislators to restore $1.6 million in emergency bridge funding for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The money was allocated last year by the legislature, but recently removed from Hogan’s proposed 2020-21 budget.

Aaron Ziegel, an associate professor who heads Towson University’s Division of Music History and Culture, said it’s hard to know whether Alsop’s departure will make it easier or more difficult for the BSO to raise the money it needs.

“I’m of two minds,” he said. "On the one hand, orchestras usually need to demonstrate stability when they make a fundraising pitch. If the financial picture is unclear, will donors be comfortable spending money when they don’t know who’s going to be the artistic head of the organization?

“On the other hand, when an orchestra is seeking to turn over a new leaf, it is often an optimal time to bring someone new on board. It’s a natural transition time.”

When Alsop was appointed by the BSO in 2007, she became the first woman to land the top post at a major American symphony orchestra, making international headlines. Two years earlier, she was the first conductor to win a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, commonly known as a “genius grant.”

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When she departs, she will be the second-longest-serving of the 12 music directors who have served as the BSO’s artistic head since it was founded in 1916. The BSO paid Alsop $901,732 for the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2018, according to tax documents. Symphony officials said that she voluntarily gave $600,000 of her salary back to the BSO since assuming the music director post in 2007.

While she is stepping aside, Alsop will have a continuing presence in Baltimore for at least the next six years, Kjome noted.

In her new role as music director laureate, Alsop will conduct the orchestra for three concerts a year through the 2025-26 season and will lead a master class for graduate conducting students at the Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute.

She also will continue to be involved in governing OrchKids, which provides free music lessons, meals and homework help to 2,000 public school students living in impoverished neighborhoods. Alsop created OrchKids in 2008 with $100,000 of her own money, but it is part of the BSO.

“Community leaders have known for some time that there would likely be a transition in the BSO’s artistic leadership,” Kjome said. “Marin cares deeply about the BSO and its future. She will continue to be involved with the BSO both off the stage and on.”

It’s not unusual for arts groups to weather a transition in artistic leadership — even those organizations in precarious economic health, said Zannie Voss, director of the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Voss studies cultural organizations that have succeeded in turning themselves around financially.

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“I have seen numerous instances where the change in artistic leadership has been a positive change,” she said.

“Your current music director is going to stay for a while, and it’s great to have that sense of a runway. A lot will also depend on how the board handles the search for a new music director. If there’s trust in the process and there’s transparency, it can have a galvanizing influence,” Voss said.

Ziegel said orchestra supporters should “be careful not to overdramatize the impact of Marin Alsop’s departure.

“Of course it’s sad that we’re losing her. But there is no shortage of top-tier talent out there,” he said. "The BSO has a storied legacy. Even with the financial difficulties the BSO is facing now, I have no doubt that they will be able to secure a music director who is fully worthy of this orchestra.”

A protege of the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, Alsop has long sought opportunities to promote female artists and, in particular, conductors and composers. She is a passionate devotee of contemporary music, and led the BSO’s New Music Festival in 2017 and 2018. During her tenure, she commissioned more than 35 world premieres and performed many rarely heard new works.

The BSO recorded 14 albums under her leadership, and in 2018, she presided over a tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland. It was the symphony’s first international tour in 13 years.

“Marin has brought the orchestra to unprecedented heights and we will always be grateful for her vision and leadership,” said Barry Rosen, the chairman of the BSO board of directors, in the orchestra’s release.

Alsop’s tenure in Baltimore came during an eventful period in the BSO’s history.

Her beginning in Baltimore in 2007 was rocky. The symphony’s musicians publicly attempted to prevent Alsop from being appointed, arguing that the seven-month search process ended prematurely and without the board fully considering other candidates.

Musicians at the time said they wanted more of a voice in selecting the music director; some observers interpreted their objections as an example of the well-documented sexism that female conductors have encountered.

But any tensions appeared to have melted away, and Alsop and the musicians settled into a productive working relationship.

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“The musicians are proud of what we have accomplished under Marin’s leadership,” said Brian Prechtl, a BSO percussionist and chairman of the Players Committee, the union representing the musicians. “Marin’s ability to draw listeners and community into greater understanding and relationship with the music and the musicians sets a new standard across the orchestral world.”

But behind the scenes, Alsop grew frustrated. She kept a low profile when the BSO locked out its musicians last summer and attempted to cut the season to 40 weeks from year-round. In November, during a meeting of a state work group tasked with restoring the BSO to solvency, Alsop voiced her concerns, criticizing aspects of how the BSO is run and hinting that she was considering winding up her tenure in Baltimore when her contract expired.

“I find this is a difficult institution to get air time in because we don’t talk about the art first," Alsop said. “Nobody ever talks to me. Barely. There’s no place to actually say these things safely, so I’m going to say them here.”

Moreover, the timing is right for Alsop to make a move. In many professions, a leader in her 60s would be viewed as nearing the end of her career. But conductors in their 60s often are just hitting their prime. For instance, Herbert von Karajan presided over the Berlin Philharmonic Symphony until just before his death in 1989 at the age of 81.

And in recent years, Alsop’s star has been on the rise internationally.

From 2012 to 2019, she also conducted Brazil’s Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra. In 2013, she mounted the podium for the Last Night of the Proms in London’s Royal Albert Hall — the first female conductor in the 118-year history of the event celebrating patriotic music of the United Kingdom.

More recently, she was a driving force behind “All Together: A Global Ode to Joy," a joint project with New York’s Carnegie Hall that will have her leading nine orchestras on five continents in performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy." (This is the 250th anniversary of the famed composer’s birth.)

Despite her globe-trotting, Alsop made a home with her partner and their teenage son in Cockeysville. From time to time, she’s been spotted browsing the produce aisle at Wegmans in Hunt Valley.

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