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Marin Alsop is taking her victory lap.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s three-week Marin Festival, which wraps up June 19 with a live broadcast and online gala featuring soprano Renée Fleming, is classical music’s equivalent of a farewell tour. It is the symphony’s way of honoring the 64-year-old Alsop, the first (and only) woman to direct a major American orchestra, as she steps down from the podium as music director.
Alsop will be introduced to an audience outside classical music when “The Conductor,” an insightful film biography directed by Johns Hopkins University professor Bernadette Wegenstein, makes its world premiere Monday at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival.
According to the film, Alsop taught herself to conduct in the 1980s after being rebuffed by musical conservatories nationwide because she is a woman. When Alsop needed to practice her craft, she persuaded a chance acquaintance, the entrepreneur Tomio Taki, into establishing the now-defunct Concordia Orchestra in New York. When Alsop finally won a fellowship to Boston’s Tanglewood Music Center in 1988, the great composer Leonard Bernstein took her under his wing.
Despite the celebratory atmosphere and many heartfelt verbal bouquets being showered upon the Maestra, for some observers (including Alsop herself), her 14-year tenure also includes missed opportunities — for her and the BSO perhaps, but more importantly, for Baltimore.
Baltimore Museum of Art director Christopher Bedford laments Alsop’s decision to step down as “a cataclysmic loss.” Only half joking, he asked: “Is it too late? Can you change her mind? Marin is irreplaceable.”
By his own admission, Bedford doesn’t have an ear for classical music. But he and Alsop use the arts to spark social change in Baltimore. Both have battled entrenched practices in fields that remain in thrall to 19th-century European traditions. Not only is Alsop the only woman to head a major American orchestra, she says she’s the only American.
After becoming the BSO’s top baton in 2007, Alsop attempted to broaden her role beyond a music director’s traditional scope of selecting repertoire, conducting, recording and touring — though she did all these things.
BSO musicians say Alsop is known for the clarity of her interpretations, her ability to lift the score off the page and release it into the open air. In 2018, she took the orchestra to the United Kingdom on the symphony’s first overseas tour in 13 years. She and the BSO have recorded 14 albums together, and she has commissioned about three dozen works.
“I am super-proud of what we have accomplished,” Alsop said during an interview at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. “The BSO’s artistic and technical level is comparable to the great orchestras of the world.”
But Alsop also expressed frustration that other community outreach initiatives she proposed were thwarted.
“If I had it to do all over again, I would not have tried so hard to move the BSO out of the Ivory Tower,” she said. “Sometimes you have to say, ‘OK, this is not where people want to go. Try to enjoy the orchestra and community as much as you can.’”
For instance, Alsop disclosed details of an ambitious urban development project that never got off the ground.
Several years ago, she said, blueprints were drawn up for a proposed arts destination district to be anchored by the BSO, Lyric Baltimore and Maryland Institute College of Art. Tentative plans included shutting down Biddle Street and creating space for shops, restaurants and artist housing.
Chief Advancement Officer Allison Burr-Livingstone confirmed the BSO commissioned an ambitious plan in 2015, calling for input from government and other organizations, to “creatively reimagine the role of the cultural district.” She said it “remains a tool to guide partnerships and future investments” and the part of the plan for exterior lighting at the Meyerhoff has been fulfilled.
Once the BSO’s financial problems erupted, talk of a community arts center ceased for the time.
In the summer of 2019, after racking up deficits totaling $16 million over a decade, the BSO locked out its musicians. An audit released that summer concluded the BSO might lack funds to remain in business for another year.
Chief operating officer Tonya Robles doesn’t think the BSO has secluded itself in an ivory tower. Still, she acknowledged that when the symphony’s survival was threatened, other priorities went by the wayside.
“That is clearly a frustrating environment in which to create — for Marin and for many,” Robles said. “While we are now well down the road of a transformational turnaround ... we have also been transparent that we have work to do in our own house and are addressing it.”
Ironically, it was Alsop’s eagerness to tear down vine-covered walls that got her hired.
In 2005, then-BSO board member Michael Bronfein flew to Denver to evaluate Alsop’s candidacy as music director.
“In the classical music world, the pace of change and willingness to change is somewhat slower than glacial,” Bronfein said. “The search committee’s goal was to repurpose the orchestra for a new audience.
“Marin saw being music director as an opportunity to apply the theories she had developed about using the orchestra to engage the community while also creating great music. It was a really different paradigm, and she had the intellect, confidence and courage to take on the challenges she would face.”
Those challenges came quickly.
Alsop’s appointment made national headlines. So did the musicians’ announcement that they didn’t want to work for her. A statement at the time by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Musicians Players’ Committee said 90% of its members wanted other candidates considered.
In hindsight, musicians say, the controversy had less to do with Alsop’s qualifications than with the players’ anger at being left out of the decision-making.
“There was a process set up to select the music director, and management didn’t honor it,” said Jane Marvine, who headed the Players’ Committee in 2005. “Everyone was a victim of that failure.”
Bronfein says: “There were entrenched attitudes going back to the 1930s and 1940s, and whether people liked it or not, we had to change. We were facing our own demise.”
Despite the hard feelings generated, he figured “over time, we would get past it.”
Alsop and the players set about establishing a strong working relationship. It helped that 33 of the BSO’s 75 musicians were appointed during her tenure, a turnover rate the organization says isn’t unusual.
“I have a beautiful relationship with the orchestra now,” Alsop said. “The majority of the musicians don’t even remember that time.”
In 2005, Alsop won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, commonly known as a “genius grant.” In 2008, she took one year’s stipend, or $100,000, and used it to found a dream projects: OrchKids.
Modeled after a Venezuelan program, OrchKids provides students from pre-K through the 12th grades with instruments, music instruction during and after school, homework help and a meal. The program serves nearly 2,000 youngsters annually in 10 city schools in impoverished neighborhoods and has been credited with reducing absenteeism and raising test scores, according to a 2018 assessment by the Baltimore Education Research Consortium.
It was an unusual activity for a classical orchestra conductor, a profession that traditionally resists nonartistic tasks. In 2006, Daniel Barenboim famously resigned as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra because he was unwilling to participate in fundraising and outreach.
“OrchKids is where Marin’s heart is, and she believes in it profoundly,” Marvine said. “She was way ahead of her time in realizing that music can be a tool for transforming lives.”
But if Alsop and the musicians bonded on stage, their offstage interactions continued with a slight restraint. The musicians were unhappy Alsop didn’t lend her voice to theirs when they were locked out of the Meyerhoff. Alsop is disappointed that just one of the BSO’s 75 players (percussionist Brian Prechtl) consistently volunteers with OrchKids.
“The musicians have not fully embraced OrchKids because the BSO has not fully embraced OrchKids,” Alsop said. “Getting more musicians involved would require the institution to make it a priority.”
Burr-Livingstone of the BSO described the symphony’s investment in OrchKids as “significant.” The BSO provides OrchKids with administrative support and fundraising. It supplies access to guest artists who sometimes hold master classes for the fledgling musicians. When COVID-19 shuttered city schools, the BSO purchased Chromebooks to help OrchKids students transition to digital learning, she said.
Has Alsop’s relationship with the orchestra ever fully gelled?
“Yes and no,” Alsop said. “I feel very close now to the musicians, very connected to them.
“But will I ever go to sleep with both eyes closed? No. I was really hurt. After something like that, you approach everything with a little bit of suspicion.”
Prechtl, chairman of the Players Committee, said the musicians worked hard to rebuild trust.
“I have watched the relationship between Marin and the musicians grow,” he said. “There have been some really wonderful developments over the years.”
Philanthropist Mark Joseph, who supports both BSO and OrchKids, thinks the relationship between the two entities needs shoring up, as well.
Two years ago, when it appeared the BSO might go bankrupt, Joseph created a separate fund to funnel donations to OrchKids.
“We didn’t want money people gave to OrchKids to sit in the BSO’s account and have the possibility of it being kited,” he said.
Burr-Livingstone said all revenues contributed to OrchKids are restricted for that program.
Other community engagement initiatives that Alsop spearheaded include the Rusty Musicians and BSO Academy, which let amateur musicians play alongside BSO pros. But if Alsop never created another program with the social significance of OrchKids, it’s partly because of bad timing.
She became music director in 2007. In 2008, the stock market crashed, and arts groups nationwide struggled to survive. Bronfein, a major backer, left the board in 2011. In 2019, the BSO almost went belly-up.
At a November 2019 meeting at the Meyerhoff of BSO musicians, staff and board members, her frustration boiled over publicly.
“This is a difficult institution to get airtime in,” she said. “Nobody ever talks to me. Barely. There’s no place to actually say things safely.”
She said no one seemed interested in her ideas. The rare times she pitched projects that were adopted, they didn’t receive sufficient resources to thrive. One example: the Global Ode to Joy project, which involved nine orchestras on five continents performing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
At the time, Peter Kjome, the BSO’s president and CEO, acknowledged the organization hadn’t always done a good job of planning, but said that would change.
Four months later the pandemic descended, and planning became impossible, as did live, indoor concerts. Baltimore’s “Ode” has been rescheduled to April 2022.
In February, 2020, the BSO announced Alsop would depart when her contract expired.
“We decided mutually this was a good time for me to leave. I didn’t have problems with any one individual. It’s more about an ethos and a philosophy of how you want to exist in a community. I had pushed as hard as I could push.”
Though Alsop will no longer be music director and though she has a busy international career (she was the first woman appointed chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra), she’s not leaving Maryland. She’s not even leaving the BSO; as music director laureate, she will lead the orchestra for three weeks of concerts over each of the next five seasons.
She’ll be a full-time faculty member at Hopkins’ Peabody Conservatory through 2024, where according to Dean Fred Bronstein she has championed conductors who are female or musicians of color.
Alsop’s protégés include at least two promising young Black conductors: Joseph Young, now music director of the Berkeley Symphony, and BSO Assistant Conductor Jonathan Taylor Rush.
“Marin opened the door for me big time,” Rush said. “She paved the way.”
And Alsop may finally have the chance she’s craved to put her ideas into practice. Later this month she becomes the first music director of the University of Maryland’s National Orchestral Institute + Festival in College Park.
“Marin is an explorer,” director Richard Scerbo said. “She has been her entire career. People who are explorers need to do that kind of work.
“The NOI gets a new crop of students every year. Unlike a major symphony orchestra, we have the benefit of nimbleness and flexibility, and we are part of a major research university.
“At the NOI, we can be a laboratory for innovation. I told Marin, ‘I want the NOI to be your sandbox where you create the future of orchestral music.’”