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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

This week, Marin Alsop became the next conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She begins in 2007. She already conducts the Bournemouth Symphony in Great Britain. She studied under Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa. She's a jazz violinist with her own swing band and is known as a champion of contemporary American music. But the lead of most stories announcing her appointment in Baltimore this weekend noted first and foremost that she is a she. Marin Alsop is the first woman to be chosen to conduct a major American symphony. Maestro Alsop joins us in our studios.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Maestro MARIN ALSOP (Conductor): It's great to be here, thanks.

SIMON: Have we all made too much of that?

Maestro ALSOP: I've almost had enough of it. You could probably go another round, but it's great to be a part of history, but it makes me a little bit sad that in the 21st century this kind of history can still be made.

SIMON: I wonder if you've got an answer in your mind now as to why is it there's been a woman secretary of State, there've been so many women astronauts, women stock car racers. Why have symphony conductors been one of the last categories?

Maestro ALSOP: It's probably twofold. Classical music is quite a conservative industry. We're still dressing the same way we dressed, you know, 150 years ago for concerts, and the experience, a lot of it is museumlike and reverential, in a certain way. And people have an archetypal image of what the maestro is about. Even I do. You know it...

SIMON: Yeah.

Maestro ALSOP: ...certainly doesn't look like me. But I think probably more importantly, it's the abstract idea of an ultimate authority figure, and to date I think we haven't changed out perception of that person from male to female, or without gender. So that's what's so fascinating to me. I try to always be very cognizant of my reactions to new situations in regards to gender. When I was on a plane recently, you know, I just looked in to see who was flying the plane as I got on board, and there were three women in the cockpit. And I was nervous for a moment. But it was, of course, the best flight I've ever had in my life. But I was so fascinated with my personal reaction to it, which was sheerly because I wasn't accustomed to it.

SIMON: I have to ask. According to press reports, there were some members of the Baltimore Symphony who wanted the search to go on, indicating they weren't altogether pleased that the search had settled on you.

Maestro ALSOP: Right.

SIMON: Now I gather subsequently you've met--totally closed to the public, but you've met with the members of the symphony. May I ask what that was all about?

Maestro ALSOP: I was not privy to the process whatsoever. All I knew was I got a phone call and an offer to meet to discuss my interest in the position. So, you know, it took me really by surprise, because I've conducted the Baltimore Symphony regularly, increasingly since my debut, and we've always had a great relationship, and I've loved working with the musicians. I'm sure some of the musicians have objections, and if it weren't the case I wouldn't actually be very happy, because I'm a very strong person. I have very defined ideas. I have very strong vision and ideas about how a leader should behave. But as a conductor, I mean, you really should not be beloved by every musician. I think you can be respected, ultimately, very, very deeply, but I think you should often be questioned and often be disagreed with, perhaps not as publicly, but I'm hoping that there'll be a time in the future when we can all look back and say, `God,' you know, `what were we thinking?'

SIMON: Was this a week that reminded you of why you ever became a conductor?

Maestro ALSOP: This was a week that reminded me every struggle I've been through. I mean, it was the most joyous week on one hand, and it was probably the most reminiscent week of all the obstacles I've had to just endure and just soldier through in order to keep going.

SIMON: I--helpfully, our researchers came up with the fact--you probably know this--in the early 1970s the Cleveland Orchestra, 98 percent rallied against the appointment of Lorin Maazel.

Maestro ALSOP: Oh, so look, I got like 8 percent more than that. I mean, that's pretty good.

SIMON: Could I get you to talk about that quality of will? Just judging from the outside, that seems to be something that great symphony conductors often possess.

Maestro ALSOP: You know, they say it's pretty lonely on the podium. I mean, it's a very solitary profession, conducting. I practice, often in a vacuum, without my instrument, without my musicians. I spend a lot of time studying, thinking. And then I have to stand in front of a hundred people, often people I've never met before in my entire life, and you have to believe so passionately in what you're doing in order to actually enjoy that experience. And it's hard to believe, but I love this. It's fascinating to me. It's challenging all the time and it's often absolutely inspiring. And when a hundred people are doing the best they can possibly do and be the best they can possibly be, and I somehow am participating in a major way in that, it's so rewarding that I think it mitigates the sense of isolation about it.

SIMON: Is there a piece of music you'd like to recommend we play as we leave this interview?

Maestro ALSOP: Would it be OK to play one of my recordings? Could you play the...

SIMON: That's what we had in mind...

Maestro ALSOP: Could you play the...

SIMON: ...unless you wanted "Little Brown Jug" or something like that.

Maestro ALSOP: No, no.

SIMON: But that's the...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Maestro ALSOP: Well, I was really hoping for "Home on the Range." But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: All right.

Maestro ALSOP: But can you play the opening of--at least the opening of Brahms' 1st Symphony?

SIMON: I believe we can play anything you like.

Maestro ALSOP: Yes.

SIMON: That's with the London Philharmonic.

Maestro ALSOP: Yes.

(Soundbite of Brahms' 1st Symphony)

SIMON: The newly appointed music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop.

Maestro, thank you very much.

Maestro ALSOP: My pleasure. Thank you.

(Soundbite of Brahms' 1st Symphony)

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