‘You have to be strong’

It is an issue that will not lie down. Is Marin Alsop a role model because she is a good conductor or because she is a woman who made it to the top of a male-dominated profession?

Few could doubt that Alsop, 55, is an excellent musician. Listen to her recordings, from Dvorák to American contemporary composers, and you will realise she knows how to shape and pace a score.

On the concert platform, too, you sense someone who understands how to vitalise a performance. That is why she had such an impact in her seven years as principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and why she continues to make waves at Baltimore, where her innovative programmes and community outreach have transformed the city’s cultural landscape and the international profile of its orchestra.

Charismatic? That is a matter of opinion but the “woman conductor” issue is one she had to live with, while defying the prejudices attached to it. Until about 30 years ago a woman on the podium was a freak. Today there are several working at a high level but none with the international accomplishments of Alsop, who recently took up the principal conductorship of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra in Brazil. She brings it to the Proms in London on August 15.

So how has Alsop overcome the obstacles to female power-wielding, in a world that still sees conducting as a macho art?

“You have to learn how to be strong without the gender association,” she says, speaking by Skype from Baltimore after a morning of orchestra auditions. “There are more gender stereotypes for women than for men. When I speak to my women conducting students, I try to give them an idea of how society perceives women’s gestures as opposed to men’s. Virility, the macho approach, is considered good in a man but when a woman is strong it’s somehow seen as bad.”

Alsop dismisses the argument that women are temperamentally unsuited to a job where they are expected to call the tune in front of 100 musicians. She believes the continuing scarcity of female conductors is more a problem of public perceptions and “comfort levels”. “People are still not used to seeing a woman on the podium. We need to change that.”

The question is how. In 2002 Alsop inaugurated a female conducting fellowship and wherever she is principal conductor she gives recipients the opportunity to conduct a short opening work at her concerts. She has persuaded a handful of colleagues in other cities – mostly men – to offer her fellows the same opportunity. Three of Alsop’s six alumni now hold positions with American orchestras.

“I’m very proud of them,” she smiles. “Women have so few opportunities [to conduct] and if it doesn’t go well, that’s it – forget it. It’s a matter of learning from your mistakes and, equally important, having the opportunity to make mistakes.”

She says the ultimate test for women conductors is the same as for men: it’s about how good they are. “One of the things that helped me is that I never interpreted a rejection as a result of gender bias. My name is not gender-specific so sometimes when I walked out to the podium the reaction was “Oh my God, it’s a woman”. But if you come prepared and with passion, and are 100 per cent committed to the music, musicians don’t care if you have seven legs.”

Alsop’s background – her parents were professional musicians in New York and she was a Leonard Bernstein protégé – certainly helped. So did her forward-thinking attitude: almost from the start of her career she was associated with the Cabrillo festival in California, which emphasises contemporary music. In her Bournemouth years she championed Jonathan Lloyd’s fourth symphony. Unperformed since its 1988 Proms premiere, in her hands it became a phantasmagorical tour de force. More recently, in London, she wrung the heart out of James MacMillan’s Confession of Isabel Gowdie. In Baltimore she pioneered the “Rusty Musicians” programme, giving amateurs regular opportunities to play alongside professionals. Hundreds sign up for it every year.

Marin Alsop on the podium

Alsop could justifiably see herself as a candidate for one of the top orchestras on either side of the Atlantic. So why did she opt for Brazil? “Well, my career has never been ‘typical’,” she replies, implicitly acknowledging that São Paulo does not figure on most people’s list of musical cities. “There is a stereotype of South American culture – a dismissive attitude that is starting to change, partly because of [the Venezuelan music education programme] El Sistema.”

While agreeing it may be premature to talk of the São Paulo Symphony as a world-class orchestra, Alsop sees Brazil as “a country that is hungry for greatness. I think in the years ahead you’ll see a great deal of art coming from there. I mean all the arts, including symphonic music.”

Such confidence helps explain why Alsop should want to invest her time and skills in an orchestra whose stock can only rise. “I like to have impact,” she says, “to be useful, to work with people who have a vision. I have found an abundance of that in Brazil. With the economic world order as it is, I feel sorry for European orchestras, having to cut back and not take chances. It’s the opposite in São Paulo. There’s a can-do attitude there that I adore, and a high level of intellectual discourse.”

She is also immersing herself in Brazilian music – at least, the branch where popular and serious intersects. Such synergies recall her days with String Fever, the swing band she founded in New York in 1981. Some of its early recordings have just been re-released by Naxos and Alsop sees a “shared sensibility” between the Americans she espoused then – Dave Brubeck, Cole Porter, James P Johnson – and new Brazilian music that taps into popular styles.

She says classical musicians are often prejudiced against popular forms, “as if to be a great artist you have to be unintelligible. Bernstein mixed serious and popular, and was criticised for being low-brow. He saw the orchestra as a metaphor for the gathering of humanity: he understood the power of music to transform people’s lives.”

This is the context in which Alsop sees her Brazilian adventure. She admits to a sense of culture shock: São Paulo is “overwhelming, even for someone like me who grew up in Manhattan in the 1960s. It’s one of the most difficult cities I’ve been in but you go to the concert hall [a converted railway station] and you listen to the orchestra and think: “How did this happen?”

Marin Alsop conducts the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms in London on August 15.

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