What does an orchestra conductor do when a pandemic partially prevents her from conducting? She drives an RV across parts of the country with her partner and their teenage son.
This was the anecdote that came up repeatedly in response to the question of what one might be surprised to hear about the world-renowned maestra, Marin Alsop, 63.
What no one would be surprised to hear about the outgoing music director for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is that she’s brilliant, hardworking, trailblazing, committed, ahead of her time, ethical, empathetic, thoughtful, genuine, ridiculously talented and, simply, a decent human being. That’s all pretty much standard knowledge.
“When you go to Colorado, you’re going to notice the mountains — that’s what I think about Marin, she’s going to be noticed in all the most positive ways,” said Daniel Trahey, a musician and music educator who met Ms. Alsop in 2007. “She’s the best mentor you could ever have, she leads so fearlessly that you have no choice if you’re going to be around her than to also be fearless.”
Ms. Alsop was born and raised in New York City, the only child of musician parents — her father a concertmaster and her mother a cellist for the New York City Ballet Orchestra. It was expected that she would follow in their footsteps from the start. She began with piano, at age 3, but retired by 6. Then, at 7, her parents “tricked” her into playing the violin, she said, by sending her to a violin summer camp. It was love.
As her skills grew, so did her plans. At 9, she saw the great Leonard Bernstein conduct an orchestra in New York. It was settled: She would be a conductor, though she would have to wait 22 years before she would meet her inspiration in person.
In the meantime, she grew up, applied to Yale — to broaden her education, she said: “I was very interested in literature and mathematics” — and was admitted to the university’s fourth class to accept women. But, as one might expect, math and books left her too little time to practice, so she eventually gave in to the inevitable and transferred to the Julliard School to further study violin, earning a bachelor’s (1977) and then a master’s of music (1978).
Out in the world, as the years passed, she played with the New York Philharmonic and the New York City Ballet, she played a lot of chamber music and a lot of solos. And she started bands, a swing band called String Fever and her own orchestra, Concordia, which lasted for 18 years. Each was loaded with her friends, and it was they who taught her best how to conduct. “They were extremely helpful and kind and critical,” she said. “That’s really how it started for me.”
Then, in 1987, a few years after she’d kicked off Concordia, Marin met Leonard. It was terrifying. “I had built him up so much,” she said.
They first worked together at an orchestra academy at the Schleswig Holstein Music Festival in Northern Germany, but if there was any fear, it’s certainly not evident in a clip of their collaboration, easily found on YouTube. Ms. Alsop, then 30, stands before an orchestra, conducting, with Bernstein, 67, the instructor, listening in the background. At one point, he stops her and slings an arm across her shoulders, gently offering direction.
“See if you can do it,” he says. “It’s a little hard.”
“I know, a little tricky, huh?” she replies, grinning. “Will you stay here?”
He laughs and kisses the top of her head.
For the next three years, until his death in 1990, Ms. Alsop traveled with Bernstein frequently, absorbing all she could as his protégé. Her conducting career began to take off. She won her first position as music director in Eugene, Oregon; then in Long Island, New York; and Santa Cruz, California; and Denver, Colorado.
In 2002, she launched a conducting fellowship for women, after realizing others weren’t joining her in the position as she expected. It taught her that she could use music and her role to create better outcomes and opportunities for other people.
She kept that in mind when she was selected as a MacArthur Foundation fellow in 2005, for “introducing a varied and challenging repertoire with a unique presentation approach and newly interpreting classical music to orchestras and audiences alike,” and made plans for the half million dollar “genius grant” that accompanied it.
At the time, she was newly hired as the music director for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra — the first woman to head a major American orchestra — with her contract set to begin in 2007. Among her first initiatives after taking the helm was to, with the help of Mr. Trahey and some others, launch OrchKids in 2008, a program offering instrument access and orchestral training to children who wouldn’t normally have it.
“OrchKids stands as Marin’s enduring legacy to our city. The genius and generosity behind it cannot be overstated,” said Rheda Becker, who with Robert Meyerhoff was a founding donor of the program. “It was Marin’s personal, six-figure contribution from her Macarthur Genius Award, that launched it and encouraged other funders to support this groundbreaking initiative that has touched the lives of so many young people. As a city, we owe her a debt of gratitude.”
While leading the BSO for the past 13 years, Ms. Alsop also ramped up their recording, releasing multiple works. She led the orchestra on an international tour, challenged players with new music, debuted the BSO at the BBC Proms in London’s Royal Albert Hall and inspired many to new heights.
“Marin is a force of nature, she’s basically always two steps ahead of everybody around her,” said Brian Prechtl, a percussionists who’s been with the BSO since 2003.
In October, Ms. Alsop began a new appointment as chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, and she has announced that she won’t renew her BSO contract when it expires in 2021. She’ll continue to conduct three concert weeks here per year, however, through 2026 as music director laureate and stay involved with OrchKids.
“Really I love what I do,” she said. “I would credit my success to love and passion, I think if you have those, you’re in good shape.”
Hometown: New York City
Current residence: Baltimore
Education: Yale University, The Julliard School
Career highlights: Music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra through August 2021; chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra; director of Graduate Conducting at the Peabody Institute; music director of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. Ms. Alsop conducts the world’s major orchestras, according to the BSO, including the Chicago Symphony and the London Philharmonic orchestras
Civic and charitable activities: Board member and co-founder of the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship; co-founder and overseer of OrchKids; member of the American Philosophical Society