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Marin Alsop on conducting: “You’re not there to be liked”

The American conductor on why there aren’t more women following in her footsteps.

The opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony includes four of the most famous notes in classical music. Three short, one long – “dum, dum, dum, duuuuum” – it’s an instantly recognisable, and slightly ominous, pattern. For a conductor, it presents a daunting challenge. Everyone thinks they know how it should go, so how do you make your version stand out?

On a chilly January morning at London’s Southbank Centre, five conductors took it in turn to stand in front of the BBC Concert Orchestra and give those four notes their best shot. These women had travelled from all over the world, including from Australia and Portugal, to raise their baton and see what kind of sound they could coax from the orchestra.

The first up, 34-year-old Natalia Raspopova, currently an assistant conductor with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, guided the orchestra through what sounded like a creditable attempt at Beethoven’s well-known work. But then she was interrupted: the real star of the show stepped forward to give her some feedback. “You lead, don’t wait for them,” Marin Alsop, the leader of this conducting workshop, said, as she demonstrated a more effective baton movement and stance. On Raspopova’s next attempt, the difference in the orchestra’s sound was immediately apparent – crisper, and with a greater sense of urgency and forward momentum. If anyone in the audience had any doubt that there is more to conducting than just waving your arms about, Alsop had just shown them otherwise.

Alsop is the only woman conductor to have the kind of fame and name recognition that male maestros like Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim and Valery Gergiev have long enjoyed. Born in New York City in 1956 to musician parents, she attended Yale University and the Juilliard School, and then studied conducting with Leonard Bernstein. In 2007, she became the first woman to be made the musical director of a major American orchestra, when she was put in charge of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. In 2013, she was appointed music director of the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra in Brazil. The same year, she was the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

The workshop at the Southbank Centre was part of a larger initiative to provide opportunities for women in the classical music industry. Alsop, now 60, is very active as a mentor and advocate on this topic. Chief among her many education and outreach projects is the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, founded in 2002, through which she provides a two-year mentoring scheme for women conductors at the start of their careers.

Alsop founded the Fellowship, and participates in workshops like this one, because she is baffled by how few women conductors there still are, she explains when we sit down to talk in the deserted Southbank Centre artists’ bar. “I assumed, naively, that there would be more and more women in the field as I went,” she says. “I just hunkered down and was doing my own thing, and then when I came up for air after five years, there was nobody else. Ten years, nobody else. Fifteen years – where is everybody. Twenty years – a few of us, but the numbers didn’t really seem to change. So then I really had to make a conscious effort to say, ‘well, how can I help?’”

Pete Woodhead / Southbank Centre

Her experiences are borne out by the statistics. According to figures for the 2012-13 season quoted by Mother Jones, Alsop was the only woman conductor among all 22 biggest-budget orchestras in the US. In other areas of classical music, such as solo performance and composition, far more progress has been made towards gender equality, even if parity is still a way off. And yet the role of conductor – the intellectual and physical centre of the orchestra – has remained a near-all male preserve.

Why is that? Alsop thinks it has more to do with familiarity than prejudice – although the latter is still around. “People aren’t comfortable with seeing women in these roles, because there aren’t any women in the roles,” she says. “When you’re the only one, you’re always a target. . . Women have so few opportunities, comparatively speaking, that the pressure is enormous, and if you mess up the one opportunity, then you don’t get a second.”

The skill set required to be a conductor is formidable: musicians aspiring to that role must have an outstanding ear, Alsop says, as well as superb musicianship and a strong sense of inner pulse or rhythm. But as well as all that, they must have a presence on stage, and the kind of body language that can elicit the best sound from musicians. Physical signals are incredibly important in maintaining authority over an orchestra, too – when I ask about staying comfortable on long rehearsal days, Alsop fires back with “I’ve never sat down for a rehearsal”.

“Everything sends a message,” she explains.  “If I sit down, the message is that either I’m tired, or that it’s casual, or it’s too much effort. If my students ever sat down in a rehearsal, that would be it.”

Alsop is brusque and efficient in her manner, with a very dry sense of humour. Several times during the workshop she gets a laugh from the orchestra and the audience with her comments – such as “don’t move your hips, I hate that!” or “I find you a little scary” – but there’s no doubt that even the lightest tap on the shoulder or adjustment of an elbow from her can completely transform the sound her pupil makes with the orchestra. From the audience, it almost looks like magic.

An underrated skill a conductor must have, she says, is managing the musicians – just as any boss would manage employees.

“That’s a thing that often young conductors speak to me about. . . ‘I think they don’t like me,’ they say, and I say, really, it doesn’t matter, because your job is to represent the music and the composer, and that’s all you have to do. You’re not there to be liked.”

Marin Alsop conducts the Britten-Pears Orchestra and percussionist Colin Currie at Royal Festival Hall on 7 April as part of the Southbank Centre's International Orchestra Series. More details here.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Photo: Prime Images
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder