Marin Alsop on Women's Chances to Conduct

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Marin Alsop on Women's Chances to Conduct

Post by Ralph » Thu Apr 14, 2005 7:21 am

Thursday, April 14, 2005, 12:00 A.M. Pacific

Conductor foresees more women taking podium

By Melinda Bargreen
Seattle Times music critic

It's one of the last bastions of sex discrimination in the performing arts.

And it's occurring in the most prominent place in all of classical music: the podium.

When you ask conductor Marin Alsop, who makes her Seattle debut with the Seattle Symphony and cellist Truls Mørk next Thursday, whether there's a glass ceiling in her profession, she chuckles.

"I don't know if it's a glass ceiling, or a concrete or a fabric one," she says in a phone conversation from her Colorado home, "but it's definitely a ceiling. I'm very proud that I'm to become the first woman conductor in history to lead the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (of Amsterdam), but I'm also appalled. It's sort of surprising that one can still be the first woman in so many areas — in the 21st century."

Not only in America (where sex discrimination is ostensibly illegal) but also abroad, symphony orchestra membership is tipping in the distaff direction — though some major European orchestras still have only a token woman or two. About one-third of the Seattle Symphony roster is female. Women soloists are far from scarce on the concert stage; last month, both Cecile Licad and violinist Akiko Suwanai made memorable music as soloists with the Seattle Symphony. Women also can be found at the top administrative positions, and also at the top of boards of directors, in the opera and orchestral worlds.

Considerable care is taken these days in American orchestra auditions to ensure that there is no gender bias. Players audition behind screens that shield their sex, age and ethnicity; floors usually are padded to conceal the sound of women's high-heeled shoes.

But no such process applies to conductors.

"We don't audition behind a screen," says Alsop, 48, who nonetheless has become one of the most prominent and successful women conductors of all time.

"I see this as a metaphorical issue. The conductor represents the ultimate authority. Until we live in a society where women have ultimate authority, the idea of a woman conductor will be resisted."

Alsop thinks it's actually easier in England, where she has a great deal of conducting experience, "because of Margaret Thatcher. It's a different kind of society. Once they have had a powerful woman prime minister, they have a different outlook on gender and leadership."

The music director laureate of the Colorado Symphony, Alsop has gotten the most attention for her work in the United Kingdom. She began working there in 1996 at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, where Alsop was enough of a hit that the Scots decided to create a position for her. She stepped in at the prestigious London Symphony Orchestra at the last minute, and "really hit it off" with the players; the same thing happened with the London Philharmonic, with which Alsop now is recording some highly successful Brahms symphonies on the Naxos label.

In 1997, she guest conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, where she proved so popular that Alsop became their principal conductor (this term is used more widely in the UK than is music director, the standard term for American orchestras' artistic leader).

"I have a long and happy relationship with British orchestras," she explains.

"They're really easy for me to get along with. We share the same work ethic."

But the American style of podium leadership doesn't always go over very well in the UK, Alsop reports. Asked about the difficulties faced in Britain by other American conductors (including Seattle's Gerard Schwarz, who will leave the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in 2006), she says, "There are several different elements. Gerard Schwarz and I are both hands-on music directors. That's not quite the style there. They have a lot more musician involvement and administrative involvement in running the orchestra. But I had a very slow and gradual introduction to this process."

Several American conductors have collided with the British orchestra system. Leonard Slatkin stepped down last fall from the BBC Symphony in frustration over "his inability to control hiring or overall programming or the choice of soloists, sometimes even at his own concerts," according to New York Times critic John Rockwell, who also pointed to "Kent Nagano's unhappy tenure with Manchester's Hallé Orchestra a few years back."

Alsop acknowledges that a good relationship with British orchestras is "not something that happens overnight. I think I was fortunate in that the Colorado Symphony functions more like the London orchestras: not a lot of bureaucracy or layers of corporate development, but more grass-roots. I love the Bournemouth musicians, and we're already talking about an extension of my contract there, which is up in 2006."

Among her coups are the coveted Artist of the Year prize from England's Gramophone Magazine and the Royal Philharmonic Society's Conductor of the Year.

Last year, Alsop conducted four all-Bernstein concerts at the New York Philharmonic; she was originally inspired to be a conductor after watching Bernstein at work in one of his fabled "Young People's Concerts." But like many women conductors, she had to found her own orchestra, Concordia, in order to be able to conduct it. In this, she followed in the footsteps of Sarah Caldwell,who founded the Opera Company of Boston, and Eve Queler, founder of Opera Orchestra of America.

Top American conducting jobs are still elusive, even for Alsop. She told Colorado writer Marc Shulgold that she had been in the running to head both the Ravinia Festival and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: "I've heard that (the rejections) were because I was a woman."

But she also knows that the male domination of the podium is unlikely to continue indefinitely.

"As society changes," she told The Seattle Times, "so will conducting. I prefer to dwell on the positive, and how fortunate I've been."

For her, the toughest thing isn't getting conducting gigs; it's leaving behind her 1 ½-year-old son. As we speak, she's answering the doorbell, turning on a CD for her son, and making final preparations for her conducting trip to Europe and the UK.

"It's always hard when you have a family," says Alsop, who is single.

"Leaving is just killing me. I hear it gets easier as your child gets older, and I certainly hope so!"

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com
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Post by Modernistfan » Thu Apr 14, 2005 10:20 am

Alsop is definitely someone to watch. Most of her Naxos recordings with the Bournemouth have been very good, especially her Samuel Barber series. Any arbitrary restrictions, such as race, ethnicity, or gender, have the effect of making the talent pool shallower than it needs to be. There is not so much conducting talent around that we can afford to arbitrarily eliminate half of it. I do think that these barriers will continue to fall, though.

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Post by jbuck919 » Thu Apr 14, 2005 11:23 am

May I put in a plug for my college friend, classmate, and fellow music major (there were only 15 of us that year and they also included Robert Greenberg) Susan Haig?

http://web4.uwindsor.ca/users/h/haig/SH ... V?OpenPage

http://www.deanartists.com/haig.htm

I'm so proud of her.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Post by Corlyss_D » Thu Apr 14, 2005 2:33 pm

Three of the four operas UFO will be mounting this year are conducted by women. Same last year. I think it's great. I loved the stand that Bubbles took about Sarah Caldwell when the Met was going to mount . . . ? L'assedio di Corinto I think. She told the truculent Met management, "If you want me, you gotta take Caldwell. If you don't take Caldwell, you don't get me."
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Post by Modernistfan » Thu Apr 14, 2005 3:00 pm

Alsop should be considered the next time a major U.S. music directorship comes up. Perhaps New York, where Maazel has to be considered a stopgap despite his obvious quality and musicianship? If the track record of the Big Five is examined, though, she won't have much of a chance, not so much because she is a woman, as because she is an American. She would have had a better shot if she had been, say, German, and the Vice-Kapellmeister of the Mecklenburg-Schwerin Philharmoniker. The Big Five have hired exactly two American-born music directors (three if you count Maazel, who was born in France of American parents, and who returned to the United States as a baby). Those were Lenny in New York, and, now, Jimmy Levine in Boston. There are signs things are starting to change (David Robertson in St. Louis, Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco), but there is still a preference for non-Americans in these posts.

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Post by jbuck919 » Thu Apr 14, 2005 3:05 pm

Modernistfan wrote:Vice-Kapellmeister of the Mecklenburg-Schwerin Philharmoniker.
Didn't Bach once hold that job?

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Post by Modernistfan » Thu Apr 14, 2005 5:23 pm

No, that was probably Telemann. Bach was turned down for it.

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Post by MaestroDJS » Thu Apr 14, 2005 9:06 pm

Modernistfan wrote:Alsop should be considered the next time a major U.S. music directorship comes up.
I'd love to see Marin Alsop considered as a successor to Daniel Barenboim, who will leave the Chicago Symphony Orchestra next year. One of Barenboim's dislikes was that he had to be involved in community activities in addition to conducting. Marin Alsop mentioned that she hates to leave her family when she conducts. The CSO management seems to want someone who stays in town most of the time, so she might be a good fit in that respect. Oh well, we can always dream.

Dave

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Post by Ralph » Thu Apr 14, 2005 10:23 pm

I think Alsop is the foremost female candidate for a major American orchestra but the problem is that these organizations look at whether a music director will be a big fundraiser. Of course Beverly Sills was and is but that came about largely after her retirement from the opera stage.
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Post by pizza » Fri Apr 15, 2005 1:25 am

MaestroDJS wrote:
Modernistfan wrote:Alsop should be considered the next time a major U.S. music directorship comes up.
I'd love to see Marin Alsop considered as a successor to Daniel Barenboim, who will leave the Chicago Symphony Orchestra next year. One of Barenboim's dislikes was that he had to be involved in community activities in addition to conducting. Marin Alsop mentioned that she hates to leave her family when she conducts. The CSO management seems to want someone who stays in town most of the time, so she might be a good fit in that respect. Oh well, we can always dream.

Dave

David Stybr, Engineer and Composer: It's Left Brain vs. Right Brain: best 2 falls out of 3
http://members.SibeliusMusic.com/Stybr

Coordinator, Classical Music SIG (Special Interest Group) of American Mensa

Rosie: ein Walzer für Orchester -- http://www.SibeliusMusic.com/cgi-bin/sh ... reid=59153
Don't hold your breath. Chicago's management has traditionally been extremely conservative in its outlook. The CSO's only major concession to women conductors was Margaret Hillis, recruited by Reiner to be the Chorus Director. She founded the CSO Chorus in '57 and led it until 1994.

Hillis studied at Indiana University, Julliard, and with Robert Shaw. She aspired to a career as an orchestral conductor but she was advised to try choral conducting instead. Eventually, she did get a chance to conduct some major orchestras. At a 1977 Carnegie Hall concert when Solti suddenly became ill, Hillis stepped in to lead Mahler's Eighth Symphony to a standing ovation.

She also conducted the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony, the National Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, as well as the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and the Kenosha and Elgin Symphonies, and had been choral director of the Cleveland and San Francisco Symphonies.

If ever a woman deserved to conduct a major orchestra on a permanent basis, it was she. Close, but no cigar.

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Post by Corlyss_D » Fri Apr 15, 2005 2:46 am

How much of the reluctance do you guys think can be chalked up to none of the Big Five wants to lean forward in the foxhole until one of the others does?
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Post by Ralph » Fri Apr 15, 2005 5:50 am

pizza wrote:
MaestroDJS wrote:
Modernistfan wrote:Alsop should be considered the next time a major U.S. music directorship comes up.
I'd love to see Marin Alsop considered as a successor to Daniel Barenboim, who will leave the Chicago Symphony Orchestra next year. One of Barenboim's dislikes was that he had to be involved in community activities in addition to conducting. Marin Alsop mentioned that she hates to leave her family when she conducts. The CSO management seems to want someone who stays in town most of the time, so she might be a good fit in that respect. Oh well, we can always dream.

Dave

David Stybr, Engineer and Composer: It's Left Brain vs. Right Brain: best 2 falls out of 3
http://members.SibeliusMusic.com/Stybr

Coordinator, Classical Music SIG (Special Interest Group) of American Mensa

Rosie: ein Walzer für Orchester -- http://www.SibeliusMusic.com/cgi-bin/sh ... reid=59153
Don't hold your breath. Chicago's management has traditionally been extremely conservative in its outlook. The CSO's only major concession to women conductors was Margaret Hillis, recruited by Reiner to be the Chorus Director. She founded the CSO Chorus in '57 and led it until 1994.

Hillis studied at Indiana University, Julliard, and with Robert Shaw. She aspired to a career as an orchestral conductor but she was advised to try choral conducting instead. Eventually, she did get a chance to conduct some major orchestras. At a 1977 Carnegie Hall concert when Solti suddenly became ill, Hillis stepped in to lead Mahler's Eighth Symphony to a standing ovation.

She also conducted the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony, the National Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, as well as the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and the Kenosha and Elgin Symphonies, and had been choral director of the Cleveland and San Francisco Symphonies.

If ever a woman deserved to conduct a major orchestra on a permanent basis, it was she. Close, but no cigar.
*****

Actually it's reported that the CSO is seriously considering bringing back Reiner.
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Post by Ralph » Fri Apr 15, 2005 5:52 am

Corlyss_D wrote:How much of the reluctance do you guys think can be chalked up to none of the Big Five wants to lean forward in the foxhole until one of the others does?
*****

I don't think that's a factor because there wouldn't be a rush to emulate. And it's not just the legendary and now hardly relevant "Big Five," it's about a dozen U.S. orchestras that crave music directors with accents, beards preferred.
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Post by pizza » Fri Apr 15, 2005 8:58 am

Ralph wrote:
*****

Actually it's reported that the CSO is seriously considering bringing back Reiner.
Didn't they just bury him in Monaco? :?

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Post by MaestroDJS » Fri Apr 15, 2005 9:21 am

pizza wrote:
Ralph wrote: Actually it's reported that the CSO is seriously considering bringing back Reiner.
Didn't they just bury him in Monaco? :?
To the best of my knowledge, Carl Reiner is still alive and well. :D

But there is an old joke that after Fritz Reiner died, members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra kept calling the orchestra mangement because they liked hearing the announcement over and over. I've heard several musicians say that performing under Reiner was one of the most exciting times of their lives, but they're relieved they never have to do it again.

Dave

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Post by Ralph » Fri Apr 15, 2005 9:49 am

pizza wrote:
Ralph wrote:
*****

Actually it's reported that the CSO is seriously considering bringing back Reiner.
Didn't they just bury him in Monaco? :?
*****

You confuse the Great Podium Tyrant with The Grand Croupier.
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Post by Modernistfan » Fri Apr 15, 2005 5:16 pm

I think the fundraising issue is more of an excuse than anything else. Why should Europeans be more adept at fundraising anyway, given that the job description of a music director or equivalent position in Europe involves far less fundraising than would be the norm at a major American orchestra? This is because of the high degree of government subsidization of many of these orchestras.

This reminds me of the time, not so long ago, when major law firms would not hire female, African-American or, for many firms, Jewish attorneys because they feared that "the clients would not accept it." When William T. Coleman graduated from Harvard Law in the early 1950's, he had the following resume: summa cum laude at Amherst, magna cum laude at Harvard Law, Law Review, and a Supreme Court clerkship (Justice Frankfurter). (I wish I had had 1/10 of that resume.) Yet, he could not get a job in a major firm in Philadelphia because he was black. He eventually got hired by a New York firm, largely Jewish, and with Democratic Party connections (Fried, Frank). Ironically, he was a Republican and served as Secretary of Transportation in the Nixon cabinet. The current Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, had similar trouble when she graduated a few years later. The reality now, and for a lot longer time than many of these law firms would care to acknowledge, has been that the clients cared largely about having their work done in a quality manner for a fair price; the race, religion, or sex of the person doing the work was just about irrelevant. We really should not accept these excuses.

UB

Post by UB » Fri Apr 15, 2005 5:49 pm

Most European orchestras do not have to raise money to stay alive they are government subsidized. One of the problems that a European conductor has when they take over an orchestra in the States is to realize that they are going to spend almost as much time kissing babies and other parts of bodies as they are conducting.

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Post by Ralph » Fri Apr 15, 2005 9:11 pm

Modernistfan wrote:I think the fundraising issue is more of an excuse than anything else. Why should Europeans be more adept at fundraising anyway, given that the job description of a music director or equivalent position in Europe involves far less fundraising than would be the norm at a major American orchestra? This is because of the high degree of government subsidization of many of these orchestras.

This reminds me of the time, not so long ago, when major law firms would not hire female, African-American or, for many firms, Jewish attorneys because they feared that "the clients would not accept it." When William T. Coleman graduated from Harvard Law in the early 1950's, he had the following resume: summa cum laude at Amherst, magna cum laude at Harvard Law, Law Review, and a Supreme Court clerkship (Justice Frankfurter). (I wish I had had 1/10 of that resume.) Yet, he could not get a job in a major firm in Philadelphia because he was black. He eventually got hired by a New York firm, largely Jewish, and with Democratic Party connections (Fried, Frank). Ironically, he was a Republican and served as Secretary of Transportation in the Nixon cabinet. The current Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, had similar trouble when she graduated a few years later. The reality now, and for a lot longer time than many of these law firms would care to acknowledge, has been that the clients cared largely about having their work done in a quality manner for a fair price; the race, religion, or sex of the person doing the work was just about irrelevant. We really should not accept these excuses.
*****

And Paul Robeson discovered that white male secretaries at Wall Street firms were supported when they refused to take dictation from him. And Mario Cuomo couldn't penetrate the halls of a White Shoe law firm because he was an ethnic Italian. And women.... My profession behaved awfully. I'm grateful that in 1974 I started at one of the most powerful law firms, then and now, that only cared what you could do, not your race or gender or religion or national origin.

That said, the European conductor as a desideratum by American orchestras is another matter. Just as secretaries/paralegals from the U.K., Australia or New Zealand seem to have a mystique that big law firms like, if not crave, so the aura of the accent and the beard and the presumed visceral connection to the music of the Great Dead White Composers regularly works its magic. Actually its poison.
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Post by MaestroDJS » Fri Apr 15, 2005 9:29 pm

UB wrote:Most European orchestras do not have to raise money to stay alive they are government subsidized. One of the problems that a European conductor has when they take over an orchestra in the States is to realize that they are going to spend almost as much time kissing babies and other parts of bodies as they are conducting.
Nowadays when American orchestras hire conductors, male or female, the actual music making seems to be only a small part of the job description. Although the management probably wouldn't consider the idea, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra should probably hire another conductor like Frederick Stock, who led the orchestra from 1905 to 1942. Stock didn't have the star power of other conductors of his day, but he was very capable. Perhaps even more important, Stock stayed in Chicago virtually his entire career, he was very popular in the community, he loved to socialize, and he helped bring in substantial funding, season after season.

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Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Frederick Stock (1872-1942)
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Post by mahlerfan » Sun Apr 17, 2005 2:15 pm

Modernistfan wrote:Alsop is definitely someone to watch. Most of her Naxos recordings with the Bournemouth have been very good, especially her Samuel Barber series. Any arbitrary restrictions, such as race, ethnicity, or gender, have the effect of making the talent pool shallower than it needs to be. There is not so much conducting talent around that we can afford to arbitrarily eliminate half of it. I do think that these barriers will continue to fall, though.
I also like her Barber recordings. :)

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