Marin Alsop is coming back to home territory on Wednesday, Aug. 9 and Thursday, Aug. 10 to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. On Wednesday, Alsop will work with famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma and on Thursday it’s with the Marcus Roberts jazz trio in an all-Gershwin program.
“I’ve a lot of friends and family connections in Saratoga Springs,” Alsop said from Baltimore where she’s the music director for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. “So I’m looking to getting back to SPAC. I really love it.” (Alsop made her SPAC debut in 2008.)
Alsop was born in New York City but her parents lived locally. Her father, Lamar, was the concertmaster for the New York City Ballet Orchestra and her mother Ruth played cello in the same orchestra. Both died in 2014, 10 days apart.
“That was a hard year,” Alsop said.
What made things a little more difficult was that she had to find homes for all their antiques, including her father’s large vintage automobile collection.
“They were antique crazy,” she said. “I kept as many as I could for sentimental reasons, but sold others. But their instruments are still being played by BSO members. These include my mother’s cello, my own violin, and my dad’s violin and viola.”
Coming from such a musical background helped Alsop find her own way. For years, she was a freelance violinist and even played for a while in the NYC Ballet orchestra. But she became interested in conducting and her two years of study during the summer at the Tanglewood Music Center with Leonard Bernstein, where she received the Koussevitzky Conducting Prize, set her career path.
She’d worked her way up through several orchestras, including a 12-year stint with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and received the 2005 MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” grant when the BSO came calling in 2007 and offered her the job of music director. Then and even now, she is considered the only woman to hold that position in one of the 22 major U.S. orchestras with a multi-million-dollar budget, according to the League of American Orchestras. Alsop also became the music director of the Sao Paulo (Brazil) Symphony Orchestra in 2013 and continues to guest conduct the world’s major orchestras.
What Alsop is especially proud of, however, are the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship that she founded in 2002 and the Southbank (London) Centre workshops, which are both for young women conductors.
“I’ve seen the level and the number of applicants dramatically rise over the years,” she said. “That means women are more accomplished, they are getting hands-on experience earlier and more feel they are empowered to try.”
But leading an orchestra takes more than just knowing the score.
“Leadership requires a measure of diplomacy and a strength of intention, vision and the ability to make hard decisions,” Alsop said. “I believe in having a positive environment of collaboration. And as a woman on the podium, I tell my students they must have an understanding of how society perceives women and not to take anything personal. They must always put the music first.”
Alsop must be doing something right, because her contracts with both the BSO and Sao Paolo have been extended substantially.
“I feel very fortunate,” she said. “I’m very, very proud of the orchestras and what we’ve accomplished and with the outreach to the communities. It feels good.” S
Geraldine Freedman is a local freelance writer and a former freelance classical flutist in New York City.