Conductor heads to Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Sept. 27 is set to be a red-letter day. That night, Marin Alsop conducts her first concert as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She’s hardly the first woman to lead an orchestra, but she is the first to head an ensemble of such stature in an American city this big.

The distinction doesn’t exactly thrill her. “I find it shocking that 2007 is the (first) year a woman leads one of the top U.S. orchestras,” she says. “I’m very proud, but puzzled that it’s taken this long.”

That Alsop, 50, should claim this distinction is no surprise. Born in Manhattan and educated at Yale and Juilliard, she was determined to conduct. “When I was 9, I decided I wanted to be a conductor,” she says, “and I’ve never changed my mind.”

Seeing Leonard Bernstein gave her the idea. “I was immediately enchanted and enthralled,” Alsop recalls. “I was drawn to him standing there and talking to the audiences, having fun and making music.”

Her previous big break came when she was made principal conductor of Britain’s Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 2002. And in 2005, the MacArthur Foundation bestowed Alsop one of its “genius” grants, making her the first conductor — male or female — to win such a prize.

Though Alsop has pursued her career uncompromisingly, her sex has forced adjustments. “Being a conductor is all about gesture,” she says, “and I’ve worked really hard to neutralize mine so they have no gender association.”

Alsop would prefer that musicmaking, not barrier breaking, ensure her legacy. “Just being the first to do something isn’t that interesting,” she says. “I’m more interested in maximizing being in the spotlight, hoping that what I achieve will set an example for other women.”

Vocation: “Musician”

Recent breakthrough: Being named music director of a major American orchestra.

Role model: “Leonard Bernstein — not just as conductor, but also as humanitarian and citizen.”

Career mantra: “Never give up and try not to take any rejections personally.”

What’s next: “Starting my tenure as the music director of the Baltimore Symphony.”

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