Alessandra Fratus
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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.

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.

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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia