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.

Marin Alsop conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment earlier on in the 2013 Proms season. Photo: Grant Leighton
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)