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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage