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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“Real Housewives of Isis”: How do British Muslim women feel about the controversial BBC sketch?

The sketch show Revolting's satiricial take on jihadi brides has divided opinion.

“He can’t stop talking about his 40 virgins. Why can’t he be happy with me?” says a crying woman dressed in an abaya (a robe-like dress worn by some Muslim women) to her friend. “Ali bought me a new chain . . . which is eight-foot long, so I can almost get outside, which is great,” says an identically attired woman talking to camera in another sketch.

The scene flits to her wrestling with a chain attached to a cooker as she struggles to move.

Thus did the BBC announce the forthcoming arrival of “Real Housewives of Isis”, the first sketch in a new comedy series called Revolting. For some, the name of the show is apt. The trailer, which is just under two minutes long, caused uproar from certain sections on social and legacy media, with many describing it as offensive and Islamophobic. Others, however, held a different view. Satire, went the argument, should never be off limits, especially when directed at a group as heinous as the murderous death cult that is IS.

Sulekha Hassan, a British Muslim woman who lives and works in Hackney, tells me she is unhappy with the video. “I don’t think that the entire sketch is without any merits,” she says. “It succeeds in capturing the fact that these young women – they are depicted as very young in the sketch – who have gone to join Isis are no different to their non-Muslim peer group. The references to social media in particular really capture this well.”

But, she continues, “As a visibly Muslim woman who wears the abaya on occasion and the scarf [the clothes represented in the sketch], I felt offended that my choice of clothing was being inextricably linked with terrorism. I did not feel offended by it from a theological perspective at all . . . The reality is that visibly Muslim women have been physically and verbally attacked on our streets. This isn’t about us being overly sensitive, it is a product of the real dangers we face as visibly Muslim women.”

Indeed, Hassan felt strongly enough about the subject to write a piece on it. She believes it is problematic to poke fun at young women who may have been groomed by IS and who are then further subjugated by them, rather than the perpetrators themselves.

“It does not sit well with my sensibilities as a woman who is concerned for the welfare of women everywhere,” she tells me. “Isis are opportunistic death squads who reserve special cruelty for the vulnerable – including women, who they view as little more than expendables for their cause.”

But other Muslim women, like Sara Khan, director of the counter-extremism and women’s rights organisation Inspire and co-author of the book The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism, take a different view. As a Muslim woman, does the video offend her? Her response is blunt as it is strident:

“As a counter-extremism campaigner who has delivered counter-narrative work against Isis, why would it offend me?” she asks in reply to my question. “What offends me more is the fact that there are Muslim women who endorse and support Isis’ patriarchy and subjugation of women, as opposed to a sketch mocking these very women.

“I’m more offended by people who, while well-intentioned in seeking to combat anti-Muslim prejudice, downplay and ignore the reality of Islamist extremism and its radicalising power on even teenage girls,” she adds. “The fact is, many British Isis female supporters have endorsed not only the oppression of Muslim women, but also of Yazidi women, they have glorified the killings of aid workers and non-Muslims, they have expressed the desire to commit acts of horrendous violence and revel in the brutality of it.

“If that doesn’t offend you more, then you clearly have little understanding about the reality of these women jihadists.”

The case of the “Real Housewives of Isis” centres on two distinct issues. The first is the video itself; the second is the outrage that greeted it. And here the differences within the community are plain to see. For Hassan, “the outrage is reflective of the political anxieties that Muslims face due to the climate at this moment in time. I have not seen Muslims arguing that their faith was being mocked – Isis after all are not representative of Islam, they just happen to dress and look like people who adhere to the faith.”

Khan, however, takes an entirely different and characteristically robust, line. “I’m not surprised by the faux outrage,” she says. “It seems in this day and age the issues we should be offended by we are not, and the issues we aren’t offended by are precisely the ones we should be.

“It is clear in some quarters that people are in denial that there are female Muslim terrorists and supporters. Rather than taking offence at that, they misguidedly attack a sketch mocking these women. What’s been amusing to see is how some have tied themselves in knots about this: on the one hand they argue Isis has nothing to do with Islam, but then they accuse the sketch of being ‘Islamophobic’. So which is it?”

I’ve spent the last year researching IS for my forthcoming book, focusing on propaganda and recruitment methods geared both towards men and women, as well as interviewing a female IS returnee in Paris. When I was trying to work out people’s motives for joining IS, Melanie Smith, a researcher and project coordinator for the Women and Extremism programme at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, told me: “I think this is less about grooming online. I don’t subscribe to that because it takes away the agency of the person being radicalised and speaks to gender stereotypes around Isis, with the press and government saying ‘innocent’ women are groomed while men are ‘angry’ jihadists. Our research shows that many women are just as aggressive and violent.”

I have also researched the reaction to IS in the Islamic Middle East for my book – and what emerges is a clear pattern of sustained mockery toward the group from the Muslim mainstream.

From Lebanese comedy songs that IS will lead Muslims into “an abyss like no other” to clips satirising the absurdity of IS’ literal readings of the Quran, lampooning the group is widespread. An especially popular example of the genre is a sketch showing three jihadists asking IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the correct way to urinate. Can one hold his penis? No, says al-Baghdadi, because that’s the finger they use to fire their weapons on jihad. Can they squat?, asks the other. No, because girls squat. How do we piss?, asks the third. Like this says al-Baghdadi and they all urinate in their pants. The sketch ends with them all taking their urine-stained clothes to the dry cleaners.

The “Real Housewives of Isis” lacks a degree of nuance, but it does carry on a tradition long-established in the Muslim world of satire and ridicule. But whether Muslim women in the UK are comfortable about this tradition moving West-wards remains to be seen. Mockery might not be the ammunition that will ultimately defeat IS, but by being outraged at this sketch, we may be overlooking a powerful weapon at our disposal in this effort.