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.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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 head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.