Unconventional Mentor no.12 - Marin Alsop
“I want to say to all the young women out there, as I say to all young people: believe in yourselves, follow your passion and never give up, because you will create a future filled with possibility.”
This Saturday I sang in what was the first of five concerts I am performing in between now and Christmas, so I thought it was appropriate to pick an Unconventional Mentor this week from the world of classical music, and I have chosen a superb leader in women’s music, the conductor Marin Alsop.
Marin Alsop is an American conductor who studied at the Julliard School and had Leonard Bernstein as a mentor. She is based in Baltimore, where she conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but she conducts all over the world. In 2012 she was appointed as the principle conductor of the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra as well as being appointed as the chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in January this year, a post she will take up in September 2019.
Marin is a wonderfully vibrant conductor and she certainly isn’t afraid to take on a challenge, one of the biggest being the lack of female conductors, and women in general in leadership positions in the classical music world. It is hard to believe that in the last 5 years, Marin’s career has included two big firsts for women. In 2013 she was the first female conductor of the BBC's Last Night of the Proms. The first in its 118-year history, and no other woman has conducted it since (Marin did return in 2015). Her appointment in January of this year as director of Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra is the first appointment of a woman in its entire history. It is shocking to think that in 2018 there are so few women in influential leadership positions in the classical music world, but Marin has commented that this is just a reflection of society today.
“I think it has more to do with a lack of opportunity and then a comfort level in society of seeing women in certain roles.”
Not only is Marin Alsop an incredibly talented conductor, but she also champions young people getting in to classical music and ensuring that it is accessible to them. In 2008 Marin, along with two others provided seed funding for OrchKids, an organisation that promotes music to all of the communities in Baltimore and ensuring there are no barriers to taking up an interest in music by providing “music education, instruments, academic instruction, meals, as well as performance and mentorship opportunities at no cost to students and families”. It is a fantastic initiative and to date children involved in this group have performed to over half a million audience members.
Mentor Advice: Dream beyond what you see in the world today
The advice that I take from Marin Alsop is to not let the current state of the world put you off dreaming big. In her lifetime, Marin has achieved some huge firsts, but as she said in her conductor’s address in the 2013 Last Night of the Proms, she looks forward to the day when we aren’t celebrating the first woman but many of the other women who have taken up that baton.
“What excites me is that now is that we’re going to see the third, the fifth , the tenth, the one hundredth woman to follow me because we have to work towards a more just and equal playing field for women.”
Classical music is such a wonderful interest to have. To be able to play an instrument, to sing, or to conduct allows you to take part in a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. It gives you a shared language, you can pick up a piece of sheet music with a group of strangers and instantly make music. Music is a way to express human emotions that can’t be put into words, but that can only be felt. It is something I feel so lucky to have in my life and it frustrates me so much that it is perceived as something for only a certain group of people (well off, white people mostly) and that even once you get over that perception there are still huge barriers to a more diverse group of people getting involved. You only have to look at an orchestra to see that it is mostly men (less so playing, but conducting and composing) and most of the faces you see are white. The firsts that Marin has seen in her career are not uncommon. Despite girl choristers becoming more popular in the 1990s (I remember Wells Cathedral getting girl choristers in the 1990s as my friend Vicky was one of them) it was only in 2014 that Canterbury Cathedral accepted girl choristers and some traditionalists are still very much opposed to it. There is some debate about the quality of the sound a girl can make compared to a boy treble, but all I can see is the huge lack of opportunity that is denied to girls by not getting this experience. Many of today’s great choral composers (Howard Goodall, John Rutter, Bob Chilcott) all had the boy chorister experience. I was very lucky to sing in a small parish church choir with the amazing choir master Mr Parry (father of musician Ben Parry) and the music and tradition I learnt every Thursday evening has allowed me to enjoy a lifetime of classical music. I am encouraged that things are changing, and with Marin Alsop leading the way things can only improve.