A Musical Milestone for Women

    Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, graduated in 1952 near the top of her Yale Law School class. Yet, the only job she was offered after graduation was that of legal secretary. What a contrast with today, when voters in this country seem totally comfortable with the notion of electing a woman to the most to powerful job in the world. It seems there are no more barriers for women to shatter. So, I was somewhat surprised to hear about a ‘first woman’ milestone that was recently achieved.
On September 27, 2007, the Baltimore Symphony made history when Marin Alsop became the first woman to head a major symphony orchestra. Reading about her made me realize why we need more women in leadership positions in classical music. Critics have written glowingly about her musicianship. Her credits and awards are impressive; in fact, she has just won the 2008 Theodore Thomas Award from the Conductors Guild. But what struck me was her approach to music as a way to create a relationship between orchestra and audience. In The Christian Science Monitor from September 26, 2007, Marin Alsop said, “Everything in life is about personal relationships – including the way one feels about music. I want to create as many opportunities for people to have that ‘aha’ moment – give people the chance to really connect with the composers.”
Marin Alsop’s style is to break the invisible wall between orchestra and audience. As noted in The Christian Science Monitor, “She talks to her audience, swiveling around on the podium and leaning over the rail to explain the composition about to be played.” Her goal is to make classical music accessible to everyone, to take it out of the realm of fusty elitism. Many people undoubtedly view classical music like taking medicine or doing a daily workout – something that’s a chore but will somehow make them a better person. Frankly, some days I’d rather listen to Huey’s “Pop, Lock & Drop It” than to some soporific string quartet. But Marin Alsop wants to make classical music a choice we joyfully embrace. I must admit I’d gladly spend my shrinking entertainment dollars on one of the inventive programs that she has created.
She is designing concerts that combine a traditional piece, Beethoven or Mozart, for example, with a selection by a contemporary composer. The January 7, 2008 issue of The New Yorker called her inaugural season “Startlingly ambitious…Eleven living composers make appearances.” She is building an audience for new music by inviting these prominent composers to discuss their works in public conversations. The “Composers in Conversation” series seems totally fascinating. How often do you have a chance to ask the next Stravinsky about their creative process, how a piece evolves from head to sheet music to concert hall?
Sounds great, you say, but you don’t live anywhere near Baltimore. Marin Alsop is bringing the Baltimore Symphony to you. She has brought technology to the symphony; live concerts and new recordings are now readily available. Concerts are broadcast live on XM satellite radio. At the Marin Alsop website, you can download tracks from the Baltimore Symphony to your iPod. Downloads are also available at iTunes. You can buy a Baltimore Symphony CD. After not recording in decades, the Baltimore Symphony is back in the studio. The musicians, by the way, are elated.
Like Leonard Bernstein, her beloved mentor, she is a conductor for the people. As noted in The Christian Science Monitor, “The people of Baltimore embraced Alsop without hesitation. They were charmed by her down-to-earth manner. The morning the box office opened for this season, hundreds of people lined up to buy tickets. Alsop joined them on line, serving doughnuts to sweeten the wait.” Talk about making a connection with your audience! In the early `70’s, I met the conductor Carlo Giulini backstage at the Chicago Symphony. Somehow the vision of this austere figure passing out doughnuts just doesn’t compute.
But it’s a new day and Marin Alsop is bringing much needed fresh air into the staid world of classical music. Orchestras in major cities are having trouble with funding. In fact, the Baltimore Symphony spent years in debt playing to small houses. Now, thanks to her dynamic personality and fresh approach, attendance is up. TV shows, like HBO’s current series “The Wire”, and before that, “Homicide: Life on the Streets”, paint a grim picture of Baltimore, but the actual city has much to celebrate with a new maestra in town!

Jan Bina, blogger for In The Trenches Productions
The First Entertainment Website for Women Over 40!