October 7, 2005

Alsop shatters classical music’s “glass ceiling”

By Michael Roddy

POOLE (Reuters) - Marin Alsop broke a taboo to become the
first woman to head a major U.S. orchestra, then won a $500,000
"genius" grant. So what does she do for an encore?

"It's all downhill from here," the U.S.-born Alsop, named
in July to head the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, laughed after
leading her British Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra through
Mahler's Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection" at this south coast spa.

The American will have to descend from giddy heights.

The rarefied world of conducting is dominated by men, yet
Alsop became the first woman to head a major British orchestra
when she became Bournemouth's principal conductor in 2002, with
her contract renewed for two more years this week.

She did it again in July when the Baltimore Symphony
Orchestra's board picked Alsop to replace Yuri Temirkanov as
music director.

On that occasion, the headlines were less positive when the
orchestra rebelled, expressing a lack of confidence in the
selection process. The board stuck by its guns.

Alsop wants to put the matter behind her before returning
to Baltimore as guest conductor in January and taking over the
directorship in 2007.

She put the row down to "internal politics," possibly
tinged with sexism, but was keen to put music-making first.

"For me, in some ways, it's better just to take the higher
road and try to get people reconnected with why they're doing
this in the first place," she told Reuters in an interview
before conducting another Mahler performance on Thursday night.

In fact, the 48-year-old does not regard her sex as much of
a barrier at all.

"I never really felt that being a woman was a strike
against me. I felt that the struggles I had were related to the
difficulties of the profession itself," she said.


Alsop is using the $500,000 she received last month from
the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation, called a "genius grant"
given to creative people in a wide variety of fields, to help
fund a fellowship for young women conductors.

"If I can do that and be a resource for young women either
in conducting, or in other professions as well, I'll feel that
I've really contributed to society in a bigger way," she said.

Alsop first dreamed of becoming a conductor as a budding
violinist aged 9, when she heard her idol, the late American
maestro Leonard Bernstein, in her native New York.

Next week, she follows in Bernstein's footsteps, in another
guest appearance with his old orchestra the New York

"Seeing him, when I was 9, I had an immediate, visceral
reaction to what he was doing and then a sense that this is
what I wanted to do.

"It was almost like a religious calling, you know, that's
what I'm supposed to do in life and I never changed my mind,"
added Alsop, who on the podium has something of Bernstein's
famous spring in her step.

And does she hope to close the circle and be appointed to
Bernstein's old job as music director of the New York
Philharmonic one day?

"Those kind of daydreams are really a waste of time," she
said. "I have the great joy of leading that orchestra for a
week, so I'm happy about that."