As someone whose potential was obvious from an early age, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop dedicated much of her lecture at Tuesday’s Town Hall South series about mentorship and giving back.
Her musical roots date back to childhood – the daughter of two professional musicians began playing piano at age 2, and loathed it so much that she retired from the instrument at age 6. At age 7, her mother sent her to “summer camp” – eight weeks of intensive violin training.
“I loved it right away,” Alsop said during her lecture at Upper St. Clair High School. “There is something about the physicality of playing that instrument.”
While she had a knack for the violin, she felt that classical music was “so serious. I just wanted to have fun.” Then, she saw Leonard Bernstein for the first time, and her life instantly changed.
She recalled him conducting on stage, and jumping around, and really interacting and enjoying himself. “I decided right then and there that I wanted to be a conductor,” she said. “But right away I was told that girls don’t do that.”
The next morning, her father gifted her “a bunch of batons.” She said that as long as she was a musician, her parents didn’t care what she did. Of course, there was a period of rebellion in her teenage years, like with most adolescents. But unlike the typical teenager, her way of defying her parents was to go to Yale University and become a mathematician. “They were horrified. They said, ‘Good God, why would you want to go to a school like that?’”
But it was while she was at Yale that she formed String Fever, a swing string band. A regular gig in a New York City jazz club caught the attention of Phil Ramone, and led to a guest spot on one of Billy Joel’s albums. “I also composed tangos for a Lysol commercial,” she recalled of the 1980s. Still, Alsop never lost sight of her dream to become a conductor.
She went on to receive her master’s degree from The Julliard School. But, “you can’t get an opportunity to conduct unless you have conducted.”
She saved $10,000 from the String Fever gigs, and asked a man who had hired her to play a wedding to also invest in an orchestra that she wanted to form. Surprisingly, he agreed. “Mentors are so critical, and they don’t even have to be in your field,” Alsop said. “Thank you never costs much money.”
To give back to Tomio Taki, she created the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, which offers opportunities to conduct with different orchestras, and exposure to marketing, fundraising, board development and general orchestra management.
Her conducting career really launched in 1989, when she won a fellowship to conduct with Leonard Bernstein. “I had a poster of Leonard Bernstein and a poster of The Beatles in my bedroom. He was my hero. To meet him and have him exceed my expectations – I fell in love with him for real, as a person,” Alsop said.
She went on to become the first woman to conduct a British orchestra and the first woman to conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. “I am very proud and I find it absolutely pathetic that there are still firsts for women,” she said.
But it is in her role at BSO that she really took giving back to the next level. She created Orchkids, a program that provides music education, instruments and mentorship for underprivileged children in Baltimore’s schools. She’s also responsible for the BSO Fantasy Camp, which offers amateur musicians a chance to play and learn from the orchestra’s professional musicians. The week-long immersion program is available to musicians around the country, and has earned acclaim from The New York Times. “It’s a great honor to give back to people,” she said. “So many people have invested in me. Music is something that connects us and brings us together.”