Born to the Baton


She was playing piano at age 2, violin at age 5 and by age 7 she was in preschool at Juilliard, but it wasn't until she was 9 that Marin Alsop decided she wanted to be a conductor.

The only child of two professional musicians, Alsop - who today will be named music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra - was both prodigy and progeny, and when her father took her to a New York City concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein, her career plans became clear.

The dream didn't fit in that well with reality: Women were virtually unheard of as conductors. But Alsop, rather than point to the inequity - even when she was recording jingles for Kentucky Fried Chicken - did what she had to do, starting her own orchestra so she could conduct.

"She's, at her core, a musician and that's the basis she wants to be judged on, not her gender and all of the other aspects that make it hard for women to overcome whatever obstacles might be perceived," said Ellen Primack, executive director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, which Alsop has served as music director of for 14 years.

"She tries to clear that out of the discussion," Primack added. "She can stand on her own, at the top, without that as part of the discussion."

In taking over the helm of the BSO, Alsop, 48, who beginning in 1993 led the fledgling Colorado Symphony Orchestra for 12 years, will become the first woman to head a major American symphony orchestra.

Despite her achievements, her arrival will not be without tension - many BSO musicians publicly opposed the selection, which they believe was rushed, poorly thought out and made without significant input from them.

Orchestra musicians issued a statement Sunday saying that nearly 90 percent of them wanted the search extended until Thanksgiving to consider additional candidates to replace Yuri Temirkanov, a world-renowned Russian conductor who's stepping down at the end of the 2005-2006 season.

Those who know Alsop, though, say her winning personality, her ability to connect - with orchestra members and audiences alike - will prevail. Alsop declined to comment on the controversy yesterday.

"Her personality will make the thing work," said Doug Adams, president and CEO of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. "She is a person with a rare combination of skills. She has wonderful podium skills. She can turn around from the podium and speak to a room in a way very few conductors in the world can.

"She knows how to build an orchestra and get that orchestra to play at an optimal level. She has the ability to sit down one on one with a patron or potential donor and make that person very comfortable. She knows how to work with staff. She knows artistic planning. That's a set of skills that don't often come in one person."

Adams said Alsop had decided to move on when he arrived in Denver three years ago.

"I think, after around 10 years, a conductor and an orchestra have learned as much as they can from each other. ... I think she just felt it was time," he said.

Yumi Hwang-Williams, concertmaster for the Colorado Symphony, predicted Baltimore and Alsop will be "a great fit. ... It's too bad it's coming with a little bit of controversy, but it will be all worked out, I'm sure. The musicians will totally embrace her."

Alsop remains conductor laureate and will continue to conduct the Colorado Symphony on occasion. She will also maintain her position with the Cabrillo music festival, held annually in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Born in New York, Alsop was started on the piano at 2 by her parents, both of whom played in the New York City Ballet Orchestra. When she tired of the piano, her parents persuaded her to try the violin.

But seeing Bernstein conduct when she was 9 sent her down a different path.

"That was it for me. I absolutely knew that I wanted to become a conductor and never changed my mind," she says on her Web site, www.marinal

At 16, Alsop enrolled in Yale University, where she developed a taste for contemporary American music as well.

In 1984, Alsop - working as a substitute violinist, seeing few opportunities to conduct and unable to get into the conducting program at Juilliard - started her own orchestra, Concordia Orchestra, in New York City.

In 1988, at 32, she accepted a conducting fellowship at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, where she was mentored by her idol, Bernstein, before he died in 1990.

After that, she made her conducting debuts at the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and became director of the Cabrillo Festival.

"She's been remarkable to work with," said Primack. "She is very personable. ... She has a passion for the music and professionalism at the highest level. Our musicians adore her, as does our audience."

Primack said Alsop is known for her rapport with the audience, and her conversations with them are being duplicated by others across the country.

"It's her signature quality. She likes to not simply turn her back on the audience, but rather to acknowledge their role in music making," she said.

Since 2002, Alsop has led England's Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra - the first woman to conduct a major orchestra in that country.

She has also served as guest conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the City of London Sinfonia, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Christopher Pulgram, president of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players' Association, said dissension among orchestra members is to be expected. "It would be nearly impossible for a group of symphony musicians to be unanimous in their approval of any single music director. We're all going to have different tastes and expectations." Pulgram, a violinist, called Alsop's appointment "very exciting. ... It's only been in the last 10 to 20 years that women have become concertmasters in orchestras. And now a woman conductor."

In interviews, Alsop has played down the gender issue.

"I think back to the first time I conducted," she said in an interview with The Sun in 2002. "At the end, one of the guys came up to me and said, 'I never noticed you were a girl.'

"Maybe it's best to de-gender the issue," added Alsop, who was making her first guest conducting appearance in Baltimore. "If you're devoted and doing your best, that's all [musicians] want."

In 2003, Alsop was voted artist of the year by readers of Gramophone magazine. The magazine called her "a deeply committed musician, who combines a level of professionalism with a warmth and generosity of spirit that can't fail to endear her to musicians and to her audiences."

Sun art critic Glenn McNatt contributed to this article.

Marin Alsop

Born: Oct. 16, 1956, in New York

Decided to conduct: age 9

Education: Yale University and Juilliard School of Music

Posts: Colorado Symphony Orchestra (1993-2005); Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in England (2002-present)

Next scheduled performance in Baltimore: Jan. 12-14 (as guest conductor)

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