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Evening the Scores: Conductor Marin Alsop and composer Michael Hersch compare musical notes.


A Clean Canvas

Conductor Marin Alsop has free rein to promote new sounds at the Cabrillo Music Festival

By Julia Chiapella

BREAKING GENDER barriers has never been easy. But degrees of difficulty that may deter some serve as a challenge for others. Madame Curie, Amelia Earhart, Emma Goldman, Zora Neale Hurston--the annals of history give us a number of women whose talent and drive led them to positions no woman had held before.

So when Marin Alsop, conductor of the Cabrillo Music Festival and one of three women conductors in the top 75 U.S. orchestras, responds to the assumption that her gender initially kept her out of the conducting world, she does so with some of the same self-awareness and dogged determination that brought her into the league of women pioneers.

"One of the keys to my success thus far," says Alsop from her home in Denver, where she conducts the Colorado Symphony, "has been not interpreting any kind of rejection as gender- related."

Asked about being rejected by the conducting program at the highly reputed Juilliard School many years ago, she is equally sanguine. "I really thought I was rejected because I wasn't good enough, which was true. I took any rejection as a motivator to try to be better at what I do."

Now in her ninth season with the Cabrillo Music Festival, Alsop is more and more in demand. Along with conducting the Colorado Symphony and her own Concordia Orchestra, she holds two permanent posts in Europe: one with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the other with the City of London Sinfonia. She also has guest-conducted extensively around the world. She's worked with the best orchestras, including the London Symphony and the London Philharmonic, and has been "re-engaged" by both of them.

Clearly, her star is rising. "She's a good musician," says composer and Pulitzer Prize winner Christopher Rouse, whose work Der gerettete Alberich Alsop brings to this year's festival for its California premiere.

"That sounds like damning with faint praise, but it's not intended to be," Rouse continues. "Not all conductors have the level of musical understanding that she does. And she has the people skills. If you can't earn the respect of the players in the orchestra and run a good rehearsal, treat them in a way that allows them to give their best--well, Marin has a wonderful combination of both those things."

THAT MUSICIANSHIP has been well-earned. Alsop received her master's degree in violin performance from Juilliard and started out as a freelance fiddle player substituting at the New York Philharmonic. She also spent some of those early days playing on jingle sessions for Kentucky Fried Chicken. But it was always conducting that beckoned. Unable to secure a position for herself, she resorted to an act that she describes as a combined move of desperation and desire: she started her own orchestra.

"My friends were the ones that were always the most encouraging to me," Alsop says, by way of explaining her courage to create Concordia in 1984. "They'd get together with me to play Mozart symphonies. They kept my spirits up."

From her conducting position with Concordia, Alsop garnered the Leonard Bernstein Conducting Fellowship, entitling her to a season at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony. There, she studied under Bernstein himself--something that she credits as having a tremendous influence on her--as well as Seiji Ozawa and Gustav Meier. She was the first woman in Tanglewood's history to earn the coveted Koussevitzky Conducting Prize. From there, her fate seemed sealed.

But in talking about Alsop's success as a conductor, one can hardly escape the oft-repeated appraisal of her as a person of good humor and warmth.

"She has an amazing sense of humor, a warmth about her, charisma, and that intellect," says Ellen Primack, co-director of the Cabrillo Music Festival, in unabashed fondness. "She weaves them all together quite remarkably." Primack has heard many orchestra members say that "if I had to work with only one conductor for the rest of my life, it'd be Marin."

Alsop's response to all this praise is straightforward. "This is a very odd profession," she says of conducting. "The reality is you don't make the sound yourself. Everything about it is dependent on the people around you. It's dependent on how I'm able to inspire, cajole or coerce 50 to 150 people into being the best they can be. So personality has more to do with conducting than being an instrumentalist."

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Festival Facts: The Cabrillo Music Festival celebrates American icons and new stars.

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ALSOP'S PASSIONATE support of American music and her enduring dedication to composers and musicians didn't spring out of nowhere. She clearly traces her enthusiasm and excitement about music to its source.

Born the only child to musician parents in Westchester, N.Y., Alsop says her parents brought her an absolute ardor for music. "They are from very humble, poverty-stricken backgrounds. They both ended up being accomplished musicians and collectors of antiques."

Her father was concertmaster of the New York City Ballet Orchestra for 30 years. Her mother still plays the cello for the same orchestra. It was in this environment, Alsop recalls, that her parents would "just see something and fall in love with it."

Nothing stopped them from realizing a dream, and as a result, nothing stops her. "Growing up in that kind of environment kept me hopeful. It's part of the fabric of the way I grew up." Alsop's parents still come out to Cabrillo every summer to watch her conduct, and her father has built a concert hall in his backyard.

But the question remains: After nine years as conductor of the Cabrillo Music Festival, and with a burgeoning career both here and abroad, what is it that continues to draw Alsop to Cabrillo? Primack says that Alsop recently signed a three-year contract (the longest she's signed) with the festival, so she'll be returning at least through 2002.

Primack also says that Alsop has a clean canvas at the festival, where "we rarely say 'no' to anything. She has an enormous amount of freedom here." For Alsop, the only limitation she feels is one of her own making. "Perhaps I'm limited to only the music I've been exposed to," says the conductor, who presents works this year by American composers Emily Wong, Michael Hersch, Rouse and Mark O'Connor. Under her guidance, the festival will also produce Aaron Copland's opera, The Tender Land.

"I don't feel any other limitations. It's almost like jumping off a cliff to people with open arms. They're really interested in what I come up with," Alsop says, but she is quick to add that this unequivocal support from festival coordinators is not without discretion. "They sometimes don't like what I've programmed. That's fascinating to me as well. But I feel if I keep quietly nagging I can do whatever I want."

That quiet nagging may be one of Alsop's lesser-known attributes. She also says she possesses an "optimistic cynicism," a result of growing up in New York. To this she attributes the fact that she can't help noticing there are no women conducting major orchestras. She's also noticed that there are no recordings of a woman conducting standard repertoire in the classics.

Would she like to conduct a major orchestra? "I have other goals that feel more pressing," says Alsop, who admits that she wouldn't mind being the first woman to record standard repertoire. "I have aspirations to move up to greater and greater orchestras, of course. But at the same time, I love the orchestras I'm working with right now, and I'm inclined to stay with a situation and build it, and leave it better than when I arrived."

According to composer Michael Hersch, the 28-year-old whose work was essentially "discovered" by Alsop, she has a good shot at making a significant impact as a conductor. Alsop has performed three of Hersch's works, the first in 1997, when he was 25 and won first prize in the Concordia Orchestra's American Composer Awards competition.

This year, she'll perform the West Coast premiere of his Symphony No. 1. "I feel incredibly lucky to know she has faith in what I am doing," Hersch says. "That belief in me and follow-through on performances has been instrumental in the augmentation of my understanding in writing for the orchestra. There is no doubt in my mind she is among the foremost conductors of her generation."

At just 43, Alsop is relatively young as far as conductors go. She still has plenty of time to prove Hersch's point. Until then, she imparts this as the basis for her modus operandi: "As long as you keep the bigger goal in mind, which is to create great music and enjoy the people you're doing it with, everything else falls into perspective."

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From the August 2-9, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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