A Symphony of Her Own

Marin Alsop breaks new ground in a world of male maestros--but not without a fight

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BOURNEMOUTH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA / GETTY IMAGES

BORN TO LEAD: The daughter of musicians, Alsop took up piano at 2 and the violin at 5

Most children have to be dragged to the symphony. When Marin Alsop's parents took her to see Leonard Bernstein, she went nuts. She was 9 years old. "It's a little weird, isn't it?" she says. "But when I saw Bernstein conduct, I was like, Aha! He's having such a good time, he's jumping around, and he's in charge. I think that's what I'll do."

And she did. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) announced last week that it had chosen Alsop to be the orchestra's new conductor. The changing of the guard at an orchestra, even a top-flight outfit like the Baltimore Symphony, isn't usually a matter of widespread interest--it's not as if Alsop were dating Tom Cruise or anything--but this particular appointment is remarkable because high-level orchestral conducting is one of the last of the great professional boys' clubs, and Alsop will be the first woman ever to lead a major American symphony orchestra. She also finds herself in the awkward position of having to face down an orchestral rebellion before she even picks up a baton.

It's not easy to become a conductor. There are formal academic programs, but you can really learn to conduct only by doing it, and to do it you need an orchestra. "You have no instrument to practice," Alsop told TIME. "You can't get any experience." In her 20s Alsop worked as a freelance violinist in New York City, but after hours she would bribe her musician friends with pizza to let her lead them through Mozart symphonies. When she couldn't get a regular conducting position, she founded her own ensemble, the Concordia Orchestra. Never let it be said that Alsop's resolve is less than steely.

Finding an orchestra wasn't the only challenge she faced. For an art form devoted to exalting the human spirit, classical music is plagued by painfully unenlightened gender politics. Up until the middle of the 20th century, it was rare for orchestras to hire female instrumentalists, let alone female conductors. The Vienna Philharmonic was all male until 1997, when under the pressure of popular opinion it finally hired a female harpist. Among the top 75 symphony orchestras in the U.S., there are still only three female conductors. "The last domain of gender within the music business is the position of conductor," says Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. "Somebody like Marin is a real pioneer." Alsop is philosophical about the problem. "I think it's purely the fact that people are not used to it," she says.

In 1993 she was tapped to head the fledgling Colorado Symphony in Denver. In 2002 the Bournemouth Symphony hired her away, making her the first woman to head a major orchestra in England. In 2003, Gramophone, the big classical-music magazine published in Britain (they have those over there), picked her as its Artist of the Year.

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