Name: Marin Alsop
Born: 16 October 1956
Place of birth: New York City, USA
Known for: multi-award-winning American conductor and violinist; the first woman to lead a major American orchestra.
Today Marin Alsop is known as one of the foremost conductors in the world, but her route to the top wasn’t straightforward or easy. She started her career as a freelance violinist in New York City in 1976, performing with the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Ballet, Mostly Mozart, the New York Chamber Symphony and the American Composers Orchestra.
However, her true passion lay with conducting – at just nine years old, she had seen Leonard Bernstein leading the New York Philharmonic and decided that was what she wanted to do. But when she told her violin teacher this she was told: “Girls can’t do that.” Alsop would go on to prove that statement very wrong.
In 1981 she formed String Fever, a 14-piece all-woman string swing band. The band performed together for 20 years and still reconvenes for annual reunions. In 1983 she was concertmaster – leader of the first violin section in an orchestra – for a recording session of Philip Glass’s chamber opera The Photographer (1982).
However, she was rejected from the conducting programmes she applied for and by this time Alsop knew that, as traditional routes into conducting were closed to her, she would have to take things into her own hands. She decided to form her own ensemble.
She had been booked to perform at the wedding of Japanese businessman Tomio Taki. When she spoke to Taki about her conducting aspirations, he agreed to help her. With Taki’s support, in 1984, Alsop founded Concordia, a 50-piece orchestra specialising in 20th-century American music. The orchestra performed under Alsop’s baton for 18 years. During this time, her career as a conductor took off.
In 1989 she was appointed associate conductor of the Richmond Symphony, Virginia, and music director of the Eugene Symphony, Oregon. The following year she debuted with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. and the Long Island Philharmonic, New York. She became music director of the Colorado Symphony in Denver in 1993 and creative conductor chair with the St Louis Symphony Orchestra the year after.
Alsop’s reputation was also growing in Europe. She served as principal guest conductor with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in 1999 and became the first woman to lead a UK orchestra when she was appointed principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 2001.
This is just one of a long list of such firsts, including becoming the first female music director of a top-tier American orchestra in 2007 when she was appointed the ensemble’s music director and the first woman to head a Viennese orchestra when she took the position of chief conductor of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2019. In 2013, she was the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Alsop also provides mentorship. In 2002 she founded what is now known as the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship, again with the support of Tomio Taki. This two year-award provides positive mentorship and support to young female conductors under Alsop’s leadership. In 2008 she launched OrchKids, a year-round music programme for schools in Baltimore City. The scheme provides music education, instruments, intensive musical instruction, performance opportunities, healthy meals, academic support, mentorship and outside summer travel at no cost to students and families.
This is just a snapshot of Alsop’s outstanding career, and doesn’t even begin to touch on her many awards and honours. For a more in-depth treatment of her work, it’s worth visiting her own website.
Marin Alsop was born in New York City, USA, on 16 October 1956 to Ruth and LeMar Alsop. Both her parents were professional musicians; her father was concertmaster of the New York City Ballet Orchestra and her mother was a cellist in the same ensemble.
Something of a musical prodigy, she began studying violin at just two years old and piano at five. She entered Yale University in 1972, when she was 16, to study violin performance, before transferring to New York City’s prestigious Juilliard School in 1975. She received a Bachelor of Music (1977) and Master of Music (1978) in violin performance.
In 1989 she won the Leonard Bernstein Conducting Fellowship to the Tanglewood Music Centre in Lenox, Massachusetts. Already her hero, Bernstein now became her mentor. In 1990, she travelled with Bernstein to Japan to help him establish the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo.
Alsop’s long-term partner is Kristin Jurkscheit, formerly a horn player with the Colorado Symphony. Jurkscheit now works for a non-profit organisation concerned with race and equality. The couple have a son, Auden.
Did you know?
Explaining why she founded the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship, Alsop said: “I have never ascribed to the philosophy that ‘It was tough for me so it will be tough for you.’ My philosophy is ‘It was tough for me so that I could make it easier for you.’”
Marin Alsop’s eight-disc set of recordings of Bernstein’s works are considered definitive performances; she memorably conducted the Last Night of the Proms – the first female conductor to do so.
Marin Alsop conducts the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra; she became the ensemble’s first female principal conductor in 2012 (Governo do Estado de São Paulo, via Wikimedia Commons).