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.

Harry Styles performing in London on April 11. Photo: Hélène Pambrun
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How Harry Styles’ European tour was transformed into a LGBT-positive safe space

And all thanks to two fans, 50 volunteers and 28,000 pieces of paper.

After 21 dates, 20 cities, 19 suits, 14 countries and one kilt, Harry Styles’s European tour came to a close last night in Dublin. Some of his most dedicated fans attended a handful of dates in a row, organising their own queuing systems, and arranging tributes to the Manchester terror attacks. “Feel free to be whoever you want to be in this room,” Styles said at every gig, always bringing an LGBT flag on to the stage as he performed. As ever, his shows were a always collaboration between artist and audience to create a safe space for teenage girls and LGBT fans.

On this tour, two fans in particular went above and beyond to create a visually striking, affirmational statement. Ksenia, 17, and Luna, 20, came up with the Rainbow Project, a labour-intensive and involved plan to invite those attending the London dates of the tour to participate in a giant rainbow running around the circumference of the O2 Arena. The project involved distributing 14,000 pieces of differently coloured paper and instructions each night to different seat sections: fans were then invited to put the paper over their phone torches during the song “Sweet Creature” to create a rainbow light effect.

Ksenia and Luna tell me they have been fans of Harry's since his One Direction days: in 2014 and 2012 respectively. “We are really proud of how far he’s come,” Luna explains, “from being afraid of what people thought of him, to confidently pulling off wearing a dress!” The two say they were inspired by Harrys support of the LGBT community: “We just wanted to do something for him.”

Such fan projects aren’t new. As the writer Aamina Khan explains, One Direction fans – who are known for collectively organising to win polls, drive obscure songs to become chart hits, or raise money for charities the band have supported in the past – have been organising fan projects around the rainbow flag since 2014. As the presence of such flags became more and more visbile, Styles in particular started engaging with both the symbol and its message: draping flags around him speaking of love and equality to the crowd. Last year, fans brought hundreds of #BlackLivesMatter signs to Harry Styles concerts.

But Ksenia and Luna’s project seems by far the most complex and challenging so far. “It took us three months to prepare the project,” Luna explains. “We had a group of about 25 volunteers for each show who helped us to hand the colours out. Almost everyone in the arena got a colour, so we made 28,000 pieces in total for the two days.”

Aside from the hours and organisation needed to produce, print, cut out and distribute close to 30,000 small pieces of paper, they both feared that the strict security teams at venues like the O2 wouldn’t take too kindly to their plan. “Obviously you are scared that what you planned doesn't work out,” Luna explains. “But we were pretty optimistic.”

“The venue sadly did take 5,000 pieces away from us on the first night, as we needed permission to do the whole thing – which we didn’t know. The next day, the O2 and its venue manager Rachael reached out to us, and we were happy to have official permission. That night everything worked out perfectly and we’ve never seen something more stunning. It left us speechless.”

“Harry creates wonderful safe spaces each night he steps on stage,” they tell me. “We think we speak for everyone when we say that we’re thankful for that.”

Luna says that the inclusive feeling of Harry Styles concerts is a collaboration between both audience and artist:  “He brings a message, and we as fans chose what we can identify with or look up to. The combination of that creates the feeling at a concert.”

The Harry Styles tour has left Europe, but it’s far from over. As it moves on to Australia, Asia and America, more creative fan projects are undoubtedly on the way.

All photos by Hélène Pambrun.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.