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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The loneliest job on earth

By Norman Lebrecht / July 27, 2005


'I feel like the victim of a hit and run accident,' said Marin Alsop when I rang to congratulate her. It seemed a strained reaction from a serious conductor who, aged 48, had just become the first woman chief of a US big-city symphony orchestra. But the circumstances of her appointment had been stressful, to say the least.

Alsop is principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, which plays tomorrow night at the BBC Proms. She has made two-dozen popular recordings and is high on the guest list of major orchestras. She was well due for an upgrade.

Early last week, the board of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra let it be known that Alsop was to be the next music director, succeeding the Russian Yuri Temirkanov who had improved playing quality but failed to connect with community bigwigs. On a shortlist made up of an Austrian plodder and two pinpricks from Norway and Spain, Alsop's was the only quality name, and the only American. On form, she was a shoe-in.

However, no sooner was her name on the wires than a committee representing a majority of the players issued a statement condemning the 'premature conclusion of the search process' and asking for more time to give the lesser fry a chance. They had nothing against Alsop as a woman - the spokesperson was a female English horn - nor did they reject her musically, after repeated dates as a guest conductor. This seemed to be just another of those occasions when musicians pick the worst possible moment to air unrelated internal grievances.

Alsop, shaken, asked to meet the rebels. 'We had a private meeting. I told the band I wasn't comfortable signing til I had talked to them. The musicians were conciliatory. I decided to walk in cold and see if I can be helpful to them, get them into a positive way of thinking by setting a very clear artistic agenda for the next few years.'

That's Marin Alsop, through and through. Of all current conductors, she is probably the best facilitator, the one who gets things done. At Bournemouth, where she has been in charge since 2002, she has worked up a worldwide reputation on Naxos Records - pitiful fees, mass distribution - with a stream of easy-listening Americana.

Some concerts on the South coast sell out six weeks in advance. A ticket was said to have fetched £170 on e-bay. There's a buzz about Bournemouth that is lacking in bigger UK orchestras. She has become regular with the London bands, playing Daytona, Florida, last week with the LSO and recording a Brahms cycle with the London Philharmonic.

Her Prom is a typical Bournemouth bill of John Adams overture and Prokofiev ballet with a John Corigliano movie score, The Red Violin, as centrepiece. 'I'm so proud of Bournemouth,' she glows. 'The players are not just exceptional musicians, they're really good people. They've been very intelligent in building long-term relationships with many conductors. They tap into my strengths. I feel as if I've had a big impact, but I'm not absolutely essential to them.'

This, for a conductor, is very small talk indeed. Most tell you how they changed an orchestra. Alsop tells you how she achieves personal development through working with musicians she likes and respects. She came up the hard way in New York, the child of two musicians, failed to get into Juilliard, formed her own chamber orchestra and finally got to sit in Tanglewood at the feet of her hero, Leonard Bernstein.

She was music director for 12 years in mountainous Colorado before landing the Bournemouth job. She has since been twice shortlisted for frontline US orchestras, and twice spurned for less interesting males. It is nothing short of scandalous that five years into the 21st century, when most orchestras have a preponderance of young women players, none in America has yet dared to appoint a woman chief conductor.

Baltimore is not Big Five, nor even top ten in terms of budget and reputation, but it is well-regarded and within easy commuting distance of the White House. If Alsop makes a good fist of things she will be in line for the next prime slot, in Philadelphia or New York. She sees the Baltimore uprising as an outlet for 'other frustrations' ö a feeling that the management (and some conductors) were not listening to the players' concerns. 'They felt unvalued,' she says. 'I need to get a line of communication going. I don't have to be in love with people to work effectively, as long as we all have the good of the orchestra at heart.'

Intensely practical, she juggles a transatlantic travel schedule with the needs of a two year-old son ('I have a wonderful nanny, and a partner'). But she is acutely aware of the responsibility that rests on her as the woman who has got further than any other in a field stubbornly resistant to her sex.

Fifteen years ago, it became possible for the first time to imagine a future for women in the podium. Neville Marriner yielded his Academy to Iona Brown; Ilya Musin, Gergiev's teacher, named Sian Edwards as his most promising pupil; the American Symphony Orchestra appointed Catherine Comet as principal conductor. Jane Glover took over the London Mozart Players. One by one, they fell to earth. Brown and Comet retired hurt. Sian Edwards was thrown to the wolves by unsupportive bosses at English National Opera. Andrea Quinn was forced out of the Royal Ballet orchestra, moving to New York City Ballet. Jane Glover became a governor of the BBC.

Today, apart from Alsop, the only women making headway are Emmanuelle Haim, a French baroque specialist, and Susanna Malkki, a fast-rising Finn who has just been named music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris. Neither does mainstream repertoire. Simone Young, in Hamburg, sticks mostly to opera. Alsop has the symphonic ground to herself.

Against that sorry backdrop, her Baltimore appointment assumes cosmic dimensions, almost a matter of make or break for women in the podium. The loneliness of her position has begun to dawn. 'How much this has to do with any historical significance?' says Alsop guardedly. 'I honestly don't know. It's hard to tell when you're in the eye of a storm. For me, now that I've got the job, I want to sit back and refocus.' She plans to extend her Bournemouth contract for two more years and move home to Baltimore, once she has checked out pre-schools and supermarkets. 'I see,' she says warily, 'great potential there.' She knows, more than anyone, how much rides on her success

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001