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

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And then the Baltimore Symphony came calling. Alsop was seen as new blood and a new direction: she's only 48, young for a conductor at this level. She's funny and approachable--she has a habit of chatting informally to audiences from the podium--and she has been known to moonlight (on the violin) with a swing band. She can handle the warhorses of the repertoire--she just recorded Brahms' Symphony No. 1 with the London Philharmonic--but she also champions living American composers like Philip Glass. She can even be heard, on occasion, to utter the phrase way cool. "There's this whole archetypal image of what a conductor is, this inaccessible person with an accent and an ascot," Alsop says. "This is the age of collaboration rather than autocracy."

It seemed like a good match. But when it was leaked that Alsop was a front runner, the seven instrumentalists on the search committee issued a statement reading, in part, "Approximately 90 percent of the orchestra musicians believe that ending the search process now, before we are sure the best candidate has been found, would be a disservice to the patrons of the BSO."

The statement didn't mention Alsop specifically--it didn't have to--but a scathing letter, obtained by the Washington Post, from one of the orchestra's board members did. "The overriding justification for eliminating Alsop is that 90% of the BSO musicians oppose her appointment," the board member wrote. "They say that she either does not hear problems or--because her technical limitations prevent her from fixing them--that she ignores them." The board became deadlocked, musicians vs. management. "The musicians clearly did not have her as a preference," says Decatur H. Miller, a 35-year veteran of the BSO's board. "It was painful." It was no picnic for Alsop either. "It was bizarre," she says, laughing ruefully. "It was like being caught in a black hole. I was like, Wow, what happened?"

A symphony orchestra is many things, but a democracy is not one of them. The nonmusician board members stuck to their guns, and Alsop's appointment was officially confirmed. The musicians put out a measured, tactful statement expressing both that they were disappointed and that they were willing to work with Alsop. "It's unfortunate that [the conflict] went public--nobody gained by that," says Jane Marvine, head of the BSO Players Committee and an English-horn player. "But as painful as this was for both her and us, I think we each may bring a little bit more to the relationship because of it."

All that remained was for Alsop to address the troops. She kept it short--six minutes, by her reckoning--and sweet: "I said, 'Listen, I don't know how this got to this place. But I need to know that we're a team. It'll be hard for me, and I can put this behind us if you can.'" Alsop offered to leave the room and let the musicians talk it over among themselves. "I didn't even get backstage. They said, 'Come back!' It was nice. If anything this week could have been nice, that was it."

With reporting by Melissa August / Washington and Lina Lofaro / New York

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