Marin Alsop, 56, is the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra. This weekend she becomes the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms.
What was your earliest ambition?
I saw Leonard Bernstein conduct when I was nine and that was the very moment I decided I wanted to be a conductor.
Public school or state school? University or straight into work?
Private school and then I was an undergraduate at Yale. Then I went to Juilliard – I did a lot of school but none was to do with conducting. I wanted to go to school for conducting but I didn’t get accepted! When I got my masters from Juilliard in violin performance, as soon as I was able to I started my own orchestra.
Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?
What matters the most is perseverance and work ethic. You have to be unwilling to give up.
How physically fit are you?
I work out almost daily. For me it’s also about being mentally fit, and physical activity seems to help me focus.
Have you ever taken an IQ test?
When I was a kid. I think EQ is more important in this day and age.
Who was or still is your mentor?
Musically, Leonard Bernstein. I also have a non-musical mentor, Tomio Taki. He helped me found my orchestra and supported it for 18 years. I started a conducting fellowship for women with his name on it.
How politically committed are you?
I will stand up for what I believe in, speak out when I feel it’s necessary.
Do you consider your carbon footprint?
I try – we have hybrid cars and we’re great recyclers, but I don’t think it balances my travel schedule.
Do you have more than one home?
Just a condo in Baltimore.
What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?
A private plane. That would really make me feel guilty about my carbon footprint.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
If my biggest extravagance is synonymous with my biggest joy, taking a day off to be with my nine-year-old son.
In what place are you happiest?
I just love being around my son. That probably trumps being on the podium. I’m also very happy on the podium!
What ambitions do you still have?
Lots. I started OrchKids, an after-school project for minority kids in Baltimore, and we have 600 in the programme. I’d like to reach all the kids in the public [state] schools – that would be 85,000 so I have a way to go.
What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?
Definitely my son.
What has been your greatest disappointment?
That I haven’t been able to expand the day from 24 hours to 36.
If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would she think?
She’d be really happy. I always believed things would turn out all right but it was a long and hard road.
If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?
There are so many interesting challenges, particularly in America. I might redirect my ambitions towards politics, to try to impact the system.
Do you believe in assisted suicide?
I believe in giving people the capacity to make ultimate decisions for themselves.
Do you believe in an afterlife?
If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?
I can imagine a few things better but not many – 9.5.
Marin Alsop conducts the Last Night of the Proms tonight. She brings the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra to the Royal Festival Hall on October 25