Famed Conductor Marin Alsop Gets His Own Documentary: NPR


Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Ravinia Festival, Sao Paolo Symphony and Vienna Radio Symphony is one of the world’s reigning musical figures. The opening moments of the new film “The Conductor” show the maestra head bent over her score, fingers moving, talking about her art.


MARIN ALSOP: To lead is to connect.


ALSOP: It’s a way of feeling human, of feeling the best of humanity.


ALSOP: Those brilliant masterpieces that some human beings have created – we’re trying here to recreate and update them so that we can move and touch all those people.

SIMON: However, as Bernadette Wegenstein’s documentary reminds us, his desire to be a conductor came up against the discouragement of musical personalities. And his 2007 appointment to lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was controversial, as well as heartbreaking. Joining us now is Marin Alsop, who we are proud to say is also a regular on this program. Maestra, thank you very much for being back with us.

ALSOP: Oh, great to be here, Scott. I missed you.

SIMON: Well, we missed you too. So good to be with you. First of all, how is it to see your life up there as a documentary?

ALSOP: What I remember is that this is really my story. So it’s very authentic, and I love how the music is woven into the documentary and becomes a character.

SIMON: Tell us about your parents. They were often absent. They were performing musicians. I believe you say here in this documentary that they often had to do four shows a day. Do you think it made you grow faster?

ALSOP: I think it pushed me to immerse myself more in the world of music because it was a very rich world. It was a world where I could, you know, play and rehearse with other people, connect.

SIMON: Well, forgive me – did you have the time or the circumstances to be a kid too?

ALSOP: I think I’m always looking for that in life, those times when I’m a kid and I don’t have a job and I don’t have responsibilities. I felt, truly, that I was born with a job. I was born to be a musician.

SIMON: Let me ask you about some episodes that come up. I’m thinking of a man whose name you don’t mention – I believe you just call him a great German – who you auditioned for at Juilliard.


ALSOP: He said you’ll never be a conductor. Your muscles have atrophied. I was 23 years old. And I said to him, maestro, I don’t think you understand. If you take me as your student, I’ll be the best student you’ve ever had. Leading is the only thing in life I want to do.

SIMON: He wasn’t convinced, was he?

ALOP: Almost. I almost had it. You know, I could see him wobble a bit. And then in that – of – you know, it was like a voice from above. He said no.

SIMON: You made a wish, didn’t you? – following many rejections that you had to face.

ALSOP: I made a vow that if ever I was in a position to mentor young people, I would never, ever discourage them.

SIMON: I didn’t know until I saw this documentary that, at least once, you almost quit.

ALSOP: Well, it was pretty disheartening to try again and again and not be able to take a break. And I thought maybe it was the world of classical music. Maybe it’s just too buttoned up for me. So I thought, oh, maybe I’ll be a rock ‘n’ roll musician. I – Scott, the important thing to note is that music has always been part of my vision of who I would be. Maybe it wasn’t classical music. Maybe it was rock music. It ended up being swing music.

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: And I started a swing band called String Fever. It’s kind of the story of my life is that – you know, you hit a snag. There are so many ways to approach it. You know, you don’t always have to try to get in through the front door.

SIMON: Let me ask you about your appointment in Baltimore in 2007. First, when you were appointed to lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, there were more women leading countries in the G- 7 (laughs) than heads of major symphony orchestras.

ALSOP: It’s – Scott, it still is.

SIMON: Oh, my word.

ALSOP: Just for information. Yes.

SIMON: Because they’ve increased the number of women in the leadership of G-7 countries and…

ALSO: Correct.

SIMON: Oh, my word. Well, say. There have been complaints in Baltimore. We see an email in which someone suggested that your nomination would somehow halt the orchestra’s progress towards excellence. And it’s very moving – in the documentary you say what should have been unmitigated joy for you – in nightmare. Was it just sexism or what at work?

ALSOP: I’m sure sexism played a part, but I think there’s a very unconscious part. That’s how I tried to see it. I mean, when I was able to get some perspective on this, when I wasn’t completely traumatized, I was like, wow, this is the manifestation of a very dysfunctional group of people or a very dysfunctional organization. For me, the best remedy for this kind of dysfunction was success. And, you know, I mean, fortunately, I’m the longest-serving musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. So in the end it worked. So it was traumatic, but it led to an incredibly deep connection.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, and I found it interesting then that towards the end of the film you were talking about the art of finding the key to connecting with an audience, to opening an emotional box. Let’s listen to what you say.


ALSOP: The key can have any shape. It can be any color. It can be anything. But if it opens the door to the moral of the story, it gives me access to why the composer wrote every note of the piece. It’s almost like the key to someone’s heart.

SIMON: Oh, my word. I don’t think I’ll ever hear a piece of music the same way again after hearing this. How do you find that?

ALSOP: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: How do you find that?

ALSOP: I think the beauty of music is that it can reach everyone’s heart in a completely different way. That, to me, is the beauty of music. It’s bipartisan. He has no judgment. There is no definitive answer because it is all about possibility.

SIMON: Maestra Marin Alsop – the documentary on her, “The Conductor”, has opened in New York and soon elsewhere. And the film will also be available on demand on iTunes, Google Play and Vudu on February 7 and March 25 on PBS. Maestra, thank you very much for being back with us. I hope to speak with you soon.

ALSOP: With pleasure. Thanks for inviting me, Scott.


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