Marin Alsop has been a lot of things in her 62 years: a protégé of the great Leonard Bernstein; a trailblazing (and prize-winning) conductor; the first woman to lead a major orchestra; a MacArthur fellow (the only conductor so honored); a multiple Grammy nominee; an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music and Royal Philharmonic Society.
Soon, she’ll be able to add movie star to that list. At least, documentary movie star.
Currently in the final stages of editing and with a hoped-for 2020 release, “We Conduct” follows Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra since 2007, as she conducts, here in Baltimore and throughout the world (she’s also Principal Conductor and Music Director of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and this month becomes Chief Conductor of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra). It paints her as a pioneering woman in the arts, a charismatic leader and an enthusiastic mentor.
That enthusiasm is apparent in a 10-minute preview compilation of scenes from the film. Before audiences young and old, working with professionals and students, Alsop shows passion, verve and commitment. “Conducting is unlike anything else in music,” Alsop says at one point. “I have to figure out how to motivate people by my gestures.”
Later, after scenes of Alsop prodding student musicians in São Paulo, she smiles, furrows her brow and explains, “My goal is to try and give that joy to as many young people as I can.”
“In the case of making a film about Marin Alsop and the art of conducting, I was lucky to find such an amazing subject who combined my interest in feminism, art and music,” filmmaker Bernadette Wegenstein, director of the Center for Advanced Media Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, writes in an email from Beijing, where she is teaching courses in media history and criticism. Her previous documentary subjects have included TV makeover shows, a Holocaust survivor living in Baltimore and the Sicilian Saint Agatha, patron saint of victims of breast cancer.
Annette Porter, the film’s producer and director of the Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund in Film and Media at Hopkins, hopes “We Conduct” does more than offer insight into what a conductor does, and why Alsop does it so well. Like Wegenstein, she finds inspiration in Alsop’s success in a field where women have had trouble making inroads.
“She was told no so often growing up,” Porter says, noting that Alsop was turned down four times before finally being accepted as a student at the prestigious Tanglewood Music Center, where she became a protégé of Bernstein. “She never, never gave up.”
Sounding a timely note, Porter says the documentary, which she hopes will play next year’s Maryland Film Festival, shines a welcome spotlight on Baltimore at a time when the city needs it. Showing Alsop in the city, showing the BSO playing at its best, showing the young faces in the OrchKids program Alsop started to introduce public school kids to classical music, can only enhance the city’s image, she says.
“I really love the way we see Baltimore in the film,” Porter says. “We hope people will see Baltimore in the same light that we see it, as a place that’s a real home for creatives, a place where the arts community is really thriving. That’s what I see.”
(“We Conduct” does not touch on the labor dispute between the BSO and its musicians, who have objected to management proposals to cut their pay and shorten their season. The players were locked out after the 2018-19 season ended in June, and as of early August, Alsop has taken no public position on the dispute. Most of the film, including the interviews with Alsop, was shot before the lockout.)
For her part, Alsop joins the filmmakers in hoping the documentary stresses the possible and inspires women, especially, to look beyond what might be expected of them. Like she did.
“I never felt that I was the subject of the film,” Alsop writes in an email, “but rather the art of leadership; the importance of mentorship; and the struggle of women in our male dominated society were the subject of the film.”