Born to the Baton

From the time she was a child, Marin Alsop, the BSO's choice for music director, knew what she wanted to do - conduct.

July 20, 2005|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

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 sop.com.

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.

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