Marin Alsop: "Musicians as much as audiences need to get used to seeing women on the podium"

Alexandra Coghlan talks to Marin Alsop, the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms.

Preview – Last Night of the Proms
Marin Alsop
 
For the first time in the 118-year history of the Proms, a woman will be conducting the famous Last Night. For Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, such milestones are commonplace. The first woman to be appointed the music director of a major US orchestra, and the first woman to record a Mahler symphony and a complete cycle of Brahms symphonies, Alsop is a professional boundary-breaker – a quiet but determined musical provocateur.
 
“You have to keep a sense of humour about it all,” she says, “but although I’m proud, I’m also shocked there can still be so many firsts for women, and not just in my field. When I started, I assumed that in ten years’ time there’d be lots of women conductors. Thirty years on and nothing has really changed.”
 
Four decades after the then manager of the New York Philharmonic, Helen Thompson, proclaimed: “Women can’t conduct Brahms and Mahler is men’s music,” we saw what happened when a woman attempted to penetrate that bastion of tradition, the Opéra National de Paris. In 2010, the orchestra there staged an unprecedented protest, downing instruments and refusing to work for the conductor Emmanuelle Haïm. Just two days before opening night, she was replaced.
 
The reasons given were artistic – but it’s not that simple. By taking issue publicly with Haïm’s “authentic” period style (a male period specialist, Thomas Hengelbrock, faced no such rebellion when he conducted Mozart’s Idomeneo at the same venue in 2006), the orchestra was marginalising not just early music, but also the female directors who have historically found in it a less combative route to leadership.
 
It’s become a phenomenon in the UK, too – a dearth of women conducting symphony orchestras but plenty directing choirs, early music groups and contemporary ensembles, groups that have a more organic relationship between conductor and musicians. This suggests the lack of female conductors is emphatically a social issue rather than a musical one. “It’s about comfort levels,” Alsop says. “Musicians as much as audiences need to get used to seeing women on the podium.”
 
Alsop has offered a direct response to the problem, setting up the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship for female conductors in 2002. “We’ve just appointed our eighth recipient. The challenge with conducting is that you can’t really practise your instrument until you are in front of a hundred people. The pressure is enormous and you need somewhere to make mistakes and experiment.”
 
The fellowship has borne fruit, with three of its alumnae already established as music directors with American symphony orchestras. And things are starting to change beyond it, too. JoAnn Falletta and Simone Young have carved out a niche in the core of the Austro-German repertoire in Europe, Britain’s Julia Jones works at leading opera houses and concert venues internationally, and Susanna Mälkki of Finland is an established force in contemporary music. Yet in a profession that involves translating gesture into sound, is the question of female physicality more than a purely social prejudice?
 
“The same gestures from a female conductor and a male conductor are interpreted completely differently,” Alsop acknowledges. “As a woman conductor, if you extend your little finger on your baton hand it looks like you’re drinking tea – people find it lightweight – while for a man the same gesture is usually interpreted as one of sensitivity.”
 
So, a female conductor, simply by inhabiting her own body, is speaking a different musical language – or perhaps the same language but with a distinctive accent. It’s still a given that left-handed conductors are taught to conduct with their right hand for fear of misinterpretation or confusion, and classical traditionalists seem to extend the same expectations and fears to women.
 
The solution is surely not one of translation – to train women to “speak” the male language of gesture. Female conductors give orchestras an opportunity. Instinctive reactions and stereotypes can’t be changed overnight but they can be transmuted into new musical textures and timbres. When you hear Alsop conduct, you don’t hear a feminine conductor, you hear a female one. Once we embrace that distinction we potentially emancipate an entirely fresh set of sounds.
 
Marin Alsop conducts the Last Night on Saturday 7 September (from 7.30pm)
Marin Alsop conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment earlier on in the 2013 Proms season. Photo: Grant Leighton

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times