Female conductors are about as rare on the podium as they are running Silicon Valley companies. Women make up less than a fifth of the country’s music directors, conductors, and assistant conductors. And cracking into the upper echelon of name-brand orchestras and festivals has proved difficult.
As recently as 2007, Marin Alsop became the first woman to head a major symphony in the US, in Baltimore. In 2013, she became the first woman to conduct the lauded Last Night at the Proms in London. And according to the League of American Orchestras, a national service organization for symphonies, Alsop’s still the only woman music director in the top 24.
This year, at the age of 59, the conductor takes her final bow after 25 years of running the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, one of the world's most esteemed events for music by living composers.
Alsop says she's leaving the Cabrillo Festival because she has a lot on her plate and feels the organization and annual event could use a fresh aesthetic. That's even though ticket sales are stronger than they've ever been. "You’d almost think, 'Well, why don’t you stay then, if it’s so great?'" Alsop says. "But that’s the moment to pass it on." The festival's board of directors has yet to name a successor.
Why are there so few women on the podium?
“You have to look at the world as it is in order to change it,” Alsop says about her experience in the field. When she walks onstage and raises her baton, Alsop says she knows she’s going to be judged by everyone – in the orchestra and in the audience – through a host of unconscious biases. "When a woman is really strong and gives a big downbeat, big chord, the immediate response is 'Whoa! Look out!' When a man does that, he’s strong and powerful."
Though she's leaving the Cabrillo Festival, Alsop isn't retiring. In addition to her position as the Baltimore Symphony's music director, Alsop travels the globe to undertake a host of other high profile gigs. She's principal conductor of the São Paulo Symphony in Brazil, and director of the Graduate Conducting Program at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. She is also a frequent guest conductor, including at the BBC Proms, and a regular classical music commentator on NPR.
Jesse Rosen, President and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, has followed Alsop's career from its start in New York in the 1980s. "You know, she’s got a lot of grit, and a lot of conviction," Rosen says. "She figured out how to be a musical leader in today’s world."
Expanding the audience for classical music
Alsop has launched a number of programs aimed at growing audiences for contemporary classical music by serving people beyond the traditional subscriber base. There’s OrchKids, which brings free lessons to low-income school children in Baltimore; and Rusty Musicians, offering amateur players the chance to reignite their passion by playing with professionals.
She's also worked hard to make contemporary classical music -- often cerebral and atonal perceived as a challenging genre for listeners -- accessible to audiences. At Cabrillo, Alsop has made a point of choosing work from composers with varied backgrounds and approaches, from the Scottish composer James MacMillan, whose ear-tingling harmonies are deeply influenced by Catholic mysticism, to Bay Area-based composer Mason Bates' electronica DJ-inspired works. "I try to stretch myself and bring a real variety to my audiences," Alsop says.
Though the festival's offerings are broad, Alsop isn't shy about declaring her own personal musical tastes. "I’m drawn to music that’s extraordinarily rhythmic, that’s very propulsive," she says.
No wonder then that John Adams, the beloved Bay Area composer best known for works like the opera Nixon in China and On The Transmigration of Souls, Adams' choral masterpiece written in honor of the victims who died in the Sep. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, is a friend and regular in Santa Cruz. Rooted in minimalism, Adams' music is nothing if not driven by rhythmic brilliance. Cabrillo has presented 15 works by Adams over the years, including several premieres.
For Alsop's final season at Cabrillo, which runs Friday, Aug. 5 - Saturday, Aug. 13, the musicians of the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra commissioned a piece from Adams specially for Alsop. The much-in-demand composer is in the middle of writing an opera about the Gold Rush. So he chose a colorful, real-life character from that period in California history -- the then-famous actress and dancer Lola Montez -- as the inspiration for his piece for Alsop, Lola Montez Does The Spider Dance. "It’s funny and a little bit outrageous and provocative," Adams says of the work. "I hope I was able to capture that sense in this piece for Marin."
The general environment for female classical musicians has improved since Alsop was starting out. In the 1980s, very few women held down jobs in professional symphony orchestras. Today, half of the musicians are female, but women still face entrenched stereotypes about what positions are appropriate for them to occupy.
Ava Ordman is principal trombonist at Cabrillo, when she's not teaching at Michigan State or playing for the Lansing Symphony. "In some respects, we share a similar position," Ordman says. "I'm in my 60s, and when I was growing up, there were no women trombonists."
Ordman adds, "Marin is a role model, not just to women conductors, but to all who are doing jobs that are traditionally dominated by men."
Men still dominate, especially in the realm of top-tier orchestras. According to the League of American Orchestras, women comprise only 11.2 percent of all music directors working today.
To help change this landscape, Alsop established the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship in 2002 to support the education and promotion of maestras near the beginning of their professional conducting careers, when they’re most likely to give up in frustration. Alumni of the fellowship typically go on to earn impressive credentials, like Carolyn Kuan, who is the music director at the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and has served as a guest conductor for organizations as the San Francisco Symphony and the New York City Opera.
But Alsop says there is a long way to go before women achieve parity with men on the podium. "I have a concern that after a few women are successful, people will say, "Well, we ticked that box, and so we’ll go back to our other plan, that we’ve been doing for a couple hundred years!'" Alsop says. "So I think we’ll just have to keep pushing."
The Cabrillo Festival runs Friday, Aug. 5 through Saturday, Aug. 13. More information here.