Marin Alsop: ‘We need to get beyond stereotypes and just accept each other’

The conductor on Hillary Clinton, Leonard Bernstein, playing in jazz clubs – and preparing for her second Last Night of the Proms

The American conductor Marin Alsop is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. She and her partner, horn player Kristin Jurkscheit, have a 12-year-old son and live in Maryland. In 2013 Alsop became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms.

You’re conducting the Last Night of the Proms - again. So now you’re not just the first woman to do it, but the second too…
Yes! I’m trying to understand how to frame this. I’ve always said that it’s not just who is the first person to do something, but who is the second, third, ninth, 10th, 100th… Now I’ll have to look forward to the third woman, or will she be the second? See how confusing it is now. But, in all seriousness, we should never forget how shocking it is that there are still areas where being first at anything can still exist for women in the 21st century.

You obviously enjoyed the joys and stresses in 2013?
It was really a magical experience – the greatest classical music party I’ve ever attended. It was doubly important to be the first woman to do the job, in that it opened a dialogue about the issue of gender equality. For me, the UK has always felt like a second home. I’ve had the happiest times working here and feel a deep connection with British musicians.

I wonder if we could ever manage a conversation in which I don’t have to ask you what it’s like to be a woman conductor? It seemed to drop off the agenda when you were conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra [2002-08] – now it’s back with a vengeance…
Change is so slow to happen. The classical music business is a microcosmic representation of the broader world, and we live in a world where women are still not considered equal. It seems that the higher the pay grade, the higher the power – the fewer the women; in politics, in the corporate world. Look at sports: why aren’t women’s sports revered in the same way as men’s? There are so many places where women struggle to get an education at all. We privileged people need to turn our attention to that, because it all begins with education.

Watch Marin Alsop’s speech at the 2013 Last Night of the Proms

Where do you stand on Hillary Clinton?
I just emailed her yesterday… only kidding. She has enough email issues! I look forward to the first woman president of the United States, whether it’s Hillary this time or another woman in the future. But, like with Obama, there can’t just be one woman or just one black president. There have to be many. Only then will the landscape have truly changed.

We haven’t managed another Margaret Thatcher here in the UK…
There’s always a risk that the first becomes a prototype for the others. We’re all different. We don’t want carbon copies. But the problem for women in high office is that they have to be more like the men than men themselves. We have to allow women to be themselves, ordinary human beings, not to be objectified.

Do you feel objectified?
I’m not your typical objectifiable kind. Most importantly, we need to get beyond the stereotypes and just accept each other. It will happen one day – maybe not in my lifetime but eventually. Women are 51% of the population after all.

How did you get the conducting bug?
My parents were both professional musicians. I was an only child. I started piano at 3, violin at 6 and, aged 9, saw Leonard Bernstein conduct and knew that’s what I wanted to do. It was love at first sight – both with the idea of conducting and with Lenny himself.

Was it the sense of control that appealed?
No. It was the exact opposite – it was about freedom, enthusiasm, enjoyment. Bernstein had found his calling and wanted to share his joy with other people. The last thing on my mind was that he was a man! Growing up in New York City in musical circles, inevitably I saw many conductors who were so obviously “male” – in control, statuesque, unmovable. But Lenny was like a big labrador puppy who wanted to lick your face and jump all over everything!

Yet even Bernstein admitted that when he was coaching you as a young woman, he found it easier to watch you conduct with his eyes shut!
Remember, though, that he was from another generation. It’s about getting people used to seeing women in a particular role, whether it’s piloting a plane or being a bishop or anchoring a news programme. In the UK I’ve never felt it’s a problem – I’ve never experienced reticence, but it became clear to me that the playing field was far from level for women.

You can’t practise conducting without an orchestra. Or can you? Did you conduct your dogs or your dolls or what?
A bit of all that. I would often ask my parents to play something and let me conduct them – which was very useful, especially as they didn’t charge! I started my own orchestra when I was about 28, but I’d always studied scores and been working on that side of things the whole time. I started a fellowship for women conductors in 2002, the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship. We’ve had 11 winners to date and they’re all doing extremely well. It’s not so much about making careers as giving women opportunities to try things out and, especially, the chance to make a few mistakes.

The biggest problem for classical music right now?
Relevance. It’s our responsibility as musicians and audience to build bridges. El Sistema already has nearly a million kids playing music. What gives me courage is that when I go to Brazil, or to Baltimore, there are young kids who love classical. We’ve set up an intensive programme, raising funds privately, to give children after-school lessons in those hours between 3 and 6pm when they are at their most vulnerable. They can be safe and busy and parents don’t have to worry about childcare. In Baltimore we already have 1,200 kids, aged five to 15 years. I want to reach 10,000 kids.

Tweeting, taking pictures, texting - is anything audience members might do at a concert off-limits for you - where you’d put down your baton and walk off?
So far I’ve never reached the point where I wanted to stop, though I guess loud talking could be annoying. I had a swing band for many years; we used to play in jazz clubs. It was good training. People would talk, bang plates, clink glasses, drop things, argue… After that, nothing fazes me!

A novelty of this year’s Last Night - apart from the tenor Jonas Kaufmann being the first German to sing Rule, Britannia!?
I’ll be bringing to the table a little piece by James P Johnson, Victory Stride. He was the fabulous black American jazz pianist and composer who wrote The Charleston.

Another Proms first?
Another first.

Marin Alsop conducts the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, London on 12 September, 7.15pm


Interview by Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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