Wednesday 22 November 2017

Classical - Alsop: the maestro breaking glass at 60

Prom queen: Marin Alsop is the first woman to lead major orchestras in the US and UK
Prom queen: Marin Alsop is the first woman to lead major orchestras in the US and UK

George Hamilton

Last week, the American composer Amy Beach featured in this space. Today, another musical trailblazer is in the spotlight. This weekend in Baltimore, the one an ocean away from West Cork, it's time for champagne and celebratory balloons, for the director of the city's Symphony Orchestra is celebrating a significant birthday.

Marin Alsop, the maestro in question, is turning 60. (Just as an aside, although she's a woman, which might suggest "maestra" might be more appropriate, the conductor herself prefers "maestro", equating the designation to that applied to women actors.)

Like Amy Beach, Marin Alsop is from the east coast of the USA, in her case from New York City, where her parents were both professional musicians. Her mother, Ruth, was a cellist in the orchestra of the New York City Ballet for over 50 years. Her father, Lamar, was the leader of that orchestra for over 30 years until his retirement in 1993.

One of his hobbies then was wood-turning, and he would make batons for his daughter, sometimes embedding fake jewels in them. "They could have been Liberace's batons," she told the Baltimore Sun. In a note on his passing, Marin recalled him "riding his bike through the streets of Manhattan with his violin or viola (or both) dangling over the handlebars!"

His collaborations reached into the world of popular song, collaborating with a broad range of artists from Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson and Tony Bennett, to Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler and Carly Simon. He was a noted whistler, too, and featured on adverts for Irish Spring soap, among other things.

With all that music in the household, it was hardly surprising that Marin - an only child - was hooked. She was only nine when she decided she was going to become a conductor.

Educated at Yale and the Julliard School, she began the formal study of conducting after taking both Bachelor's and Master's degrees in violin performance.

In her early 30s, she got her first positions, with the Eugene Symphony and Long Island Philharmonic. Over the following 10 years or so, her engagements multiplied as she moved up the ladder, taking charge in Colorado before cracking the glass ceiling with her appointment as the principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO) on England's south coast in 2002, the first woman to lead a major British orchestra.

The BSO thrived under Marin's direction, The Times of London noting she had them playing "like there was no tomorrow".

It was inevitable that her success there would attract attention back home, and that glass ceiling was well and truly smashed when she took over as the music director of the Baltimore Symphony, this time the first woman to take charge of a major American orchestra.

That was in 2007. She had her contract extended twice, and now will remain in her post until 2021.

Three years ago, she celebrated that latest extension, taking charge on the podium in the Royal Albert Hall in London for the Last Night of the Proms, another first, for no woman had presided over the event in its 118-year history.

She'd already made history there, leading the first Brazilian orchestra to perform at the Proms. The São Paulo Symphony, of which she's the principal conductor as well, featured in 2012.

Last year, Marin herself was back, presiding for the second time over the Last Night of the Proms.

Active beyond the concert hall, Marin Alsop is also the driving force behind the Baltimore Symphony's outreach programme called Orchkids, which puts on after-school music classes in the city's more deprived neighbourhoods. Happy birthday, Marin, and long may your music-making continue.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday from 10am.

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