Interview with Maestra Marin Alsop

One of the greatest conductors of our times, Marin Alsop has been appointed as the artistic director of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, becoming the first woman to take up the role. But being a pioneer for women on the international classical music scene for almost two decades, it is just one among her many firsts. Marin Alsop has been Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra since 2007, again as the first female conductor and Principal Conductor & Music Director of the São Paolo Symphony Orchestra since 2012. She also conducts international orchestras, and she is now joining us from London where she will be conducting the British Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Maestra Marin Alsop, thank you very much for being with us.

First, I would like to ask how you feel about being hailed as the first woman for so many times? Being the one who incessantly has to explain why there are few like you?

MARIN ALSOP: The thing about being a woman is getting a little bit old and a little bit tired. But you know that the fact that there can still be firsts for women indicates that clearly, we need to be still vigilant about making progress, ha?

I.E.: You must have encountered prejudice during your career. Did any orchestra resist your authority for example and if so how did you cope with such attitudes?

M.A.: Well you know I mean anyone in the position of leadership and authority is resisted at moments. So, it is very difficult to understand whether this is something related to gender or because you are in the leadership role. I don’t really interpret challenges could be based on gender. You know I accept the role of a leader and along with that role comes certain expectations and challenging authority is one of those. So, I mean it is a matter being able to navigate those paths when you are in a leadership role regardless of whether you are a man or woman.

I.E.: Then could you describe your leadership style, you stress being a messenger…

M.A.: The role of a conductor is to be the messenger of the composer and that’s our first responsibility. Our utter responsibility is to the composer and to the music. So, I think when you always keep your priorities clear then you are a better leader because then everyone who is following and engaged in the process understands what their priorities are.

I.E.: In an interview, you said: “The hardest thing for me is always to get a big sound from the orchestra without being very demanding or apologizing.” Could you comment on that?

M.A.: Well I think I was speaking in terms of, you know as a young conductor what challenges did I have in terms of gesture and getting certain things out of an orchestra. At first, I think it was very difficult to extract a very strong sound without feeling that I was being too brutal with the orchestra. And so, these are issues all conductors have to cope with and you have to go sometimes against your own personal nature because I am not a very brutal person but sometimes the music requires me to be brutal. And so, a lot of conducting is almost like acting. Because you have to go against your natural instinct in order to serve the composer. And you know without apology, I suppose, is a very important way to proceed as a leader.

I.E.: The Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, which you will take the post as of September 2019 is Vienna’s third-ranked orchestra, behind the Philharmonic and the Symphony orchestras. But I believe it is the most inclusive one. How do you feel about this appointment and what are your plans during your tenure with them?

M.A.: I am very excited about this new adventure, this partnership with the Vienna Radio Orchestra. The orchestra has a long history of innovative programming, they play a lot of contemporary music, the music of our time. They have a lot of outreach to various communities. They’re involved in education, in digital media being the radio orchestra and they have television outlet. So, I think there is a lot of opportunities to be inventive, to be relevant to the time we live in and also to carry on this incredible musical tradition that is at the heart of Vienna.

I.E.: You started learning the piano at two, the violin at five, and you decided to become a conductor at 9 when your father took you to see Leonard Bernstein conduct a Young Person’s Concert in New York. What was it about Bernstein that fascinated you at the time?

M.A.: Well, I think at the time being nine, I don’t really remember except that I loved watching him jump around and not getting trouble. I think that was truly intriguing to me that he could be so enthusiastic and enjoying himself so much in classical music and nobody was yelling at him. Because I was always being yelled at so I think it was more of an erratic interest at my part, but I think somewhere subliminally, without really understanding intellectually yet -because I was so young-, I think I really admired the way he shared his love of music. Not just with the musicians but also with the audience. He talked to the audience and that there was a clarity of passion, of purpose and passion with him and that really spoke to me. And it didn’t seem to have to conform to any rules, but it was a genuine love for what he was doing and I wanted to live like that. You know it was so appealing to me.

I.E.: Because you were so young and being fascinated with Bernstein, this question came to my mind, could his style be the why you are so keen on curating concerts for children and young people… Maybe to fascinate and win them as he did for you?

M.A.: Oh, yes, it is possible, you know, I mean, I think that Bernstein became the very important role model for me on many levels, not just as a conductor but also as a leader, as an educator, communicator and that’s all in there somewhere. You know how deeply it influenced me I don’t know but I think so much of what he did for music transcended that elite inhabitant tower and really spoke to me directly . And that was really appealing to me because I don’t like feeling isolated or as part of a clique or as part of an elite group. I like diversity, I like difference, I like access for everyone. And I think many of these he stood for. I just naturally gravitated towards as well.

I.E.: I saw at least twice that conductors putting down the baton and walk off probably because they were not happy with the audience. Did you ever do that?

M.A.: Of course not. That thing is ridiculous. I think sometimes it can be frustrating as when the audience is not in the right space to concentrate or focus but then it’s our responsibility to draw them in, not to reprimand or berate them. So, I don’t know. I was once in the audience member when the conductor turned around and gave a lecture about coughing. I was so uncomfortable and I wondered to myself I thought if I didn’t adore classical music I probably never come back. Do you know what I mean? I think that’s a terrible statement to make to people. So, it is not what I would do, it’s not what I am.

I.E.: You stress that the audience is critical. Could you elaborate and what are the qualities of the good audience.

M.A.: First of all, I think, any audience that shows up is a good audience.  I am always excited that people want to come to a concert and it is our responsibility to try to make it an experience that is memorable and moving and emotional and exciting. I think there is all kind of audiences. It is a privilege. We have to remember that it is really a privilege and the music doesn’t come to life until the audience comes and every concert is different, because, each of those audience members that have decided to come. So, I think the audience is really critical, I think we need to explain to them they are an important part of the creative process. That makes them feel I think valued and they are really involved in something exciting.

I.E.: I know that you are committed to creating as many learning opportunities for women conductors as you possibly can. Could you tell us about your fellowship program and similar activities?

M.A.: Sure, in 2002 I started a fellowship program for women conductors called Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship and we had 12 recipients. 5 of them are now American music directors and the rest of them are working with major orchestras as assistants or they have their own orchestras. So, they are all doing phenomenally well. But the idea behind this fellowship is to really tailor each fellowship to the winner. So, taking the person wherever she is in her career and trying to create opportunities that will benefit her specifically and also create opportunities for the conductor to make mistakes and to learn and to evolve and get feedback. It is really trying to give them as much learning and nurturing as possible.

I.E.: It is wonderful what you said, giving them a space to make mistakes. Because for women to succeed they have to be better than their male counterparts in every work, every field. Thank you for creating…

 M.A.: Yes, I believe strongly that, you know we learn so much more from our mistakes then we do from our success. And it’s really important to have that safe space to make mistakes and be able to recover from them.

I.E.: What do you suggest and advice to women who aspire to take the podium as you do?

M.A.: Listen, you have to follow your passion. If this is your passion, I think it is a great career. It is a wonderful life. I love it. I can’t wait to wake up every day and study and meet all the wonderful musicians I get to work with. I would say, as far as advice goes, the most important thing I believe is to work as hard as you possibly can and not give up. Also, always be proactive about finding new ways to learn and to better yourself as a conductor. And then I think you will always succeed.

I.E: I think we should keep this advice in all areas of our lives, for all kinds of work. Thank you Maestra, I hope we can have you here in Turkey sometime in the future.

M.A.: I look forward to it.

You can listen to this interview at Medyascope

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