Renowned conductor Marin Alsop's life explored in new documentary : Deceptive Cadence Scott Simon speaks with conductor Marin Alsop about "The Conductor," a new film tracing her storied life and career in classical music.

Renowned conductor Marin Alsop's life explored in new documentary

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Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Ravinia Festival, the Sao Paolo Symphony and Vienna Radio Symphony is one of the reigning music figures in the world. The opening moments of the new film "The Conductor" show the maestra head bent intently over her score, fingers moving, speaking of her art.


MARIN ALSOP: Conducting is connecting.


ALSOP: It's a way to feel human, feel the best about humanity.


ALSOP: These brilliant masterpieces that some human being created - we're here trying to recreate that and actualize it so that we can move and touch all those people.

SIMON: Yet as Bernadette Wegenstein's documentary reminds us, her desire to be a conductor was met by discouragement from prominent people in music. And her 2007 appointment to head the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was controversial, as well as ceiling-shattering. Marin Alsop, who we are proud to say is also a regular on this program, joins us now. Maestra, thanks so much for being back with us.

ALSOP: Oh, it's great to be here, Scott. I've missed you.

SIMON: Well, we've missed you, too. So good to be with you. First, what's it like to see your life up there as a documentary?

ALSOP: My takeaway is that it really is my story. So it feels very authentic, and I love the way 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 they often had to do four shows a day. Do you think that made you grow up faster?

ALSOP: I do think that it led me to immerse myself more in the world of music because it was a world that was very rich. 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 circumstance to be a kid, too?

ALSOP: I think I'm still looking for that in life, those moments to be a kid and not have a job and not have a responsibility. I felt, really, 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 do not mention - I believe you call him just a tall, German guy - for whom you auditioned at Juilliard.


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

SIMON: He wasn't convinced, was he?

ALSOP: Almost. I almost had him. You know, I could see him waver a little bit. And then, in that - from - you know, it was like a voice from above. He said, no.

SIMON: You made a vow - didn't you? - following a lot of the rejections that you had to face.

ALSOP: I made a vow that if I were ever in a position of mentoring young people, I would never, never discourage them.

SIMON: I didn't know until seeing this documentary that, at least once, you came close to calling it quits.

ALSOP: Well, it was pretty discouraging trying over and over and not being able to get a break. And I did think, maybe it's the classical music world. Maybe it's just too buttoned-down 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 was always part of my vision for 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. That's sort of the story of my life, is that - you know, you come up to an obstacle. There are so many ways that you can approach it. You know, you don't have to always try to go in the front door.

SIMON: Let me ask about your appointment in Baltimore in 2007. First, the time you were appointed head of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, there were more women heads of G-7 nations (laughter) than heads of major symphony orchestras.

ALSOP: That is - Scott, that is still the case.

SIMON: Oh, my word.

ALSOP: Just FYI. Yes.

SIMON: Because they've expanded the number of women who were head of G-7 nations and...

ALSOP: Correct.

SIMON: Oh, my word. Well, telling. There were complaints in Baltimore. We see an email in which somebody suggested your appointment somehow would halt the progress the orchestra was making toward excellence. And it's very moving - in the documentary, you say what should have been an unalloyed joy for you - into a nightmare. Was that simple sexism or what at work?

ALSOP: I'm sure that sexism played a role but I think a very unconscious role in it. This is how I tried to look at it. I mean, when I could get some perspective on it, when I wasn't just completely traumatized, I thought to myself, wow, this is the manifestation of a very dysfunctional group of people or a very dysfunctional organization. To me, the best cure for this kind of dysfunction was success. And, you know, I mean, happily, I'm the longest-serving music director of the Baltimore Symphony. So in the end, it worked out. 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 talk about the art of finding the key to connect with an audience, to open up an emotional box. Let's listen to what you say.


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

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

ALSOP: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: How do you find that?

ALSOP: I think that the beauty of music is that it can reach each person's heart in a completely different way. That, to me, is the beauty of music. It's bipartisan. It has no judgment. It has no definite answer because it's all about possibility.

SIMON: Maestra Marin Alsop - the documentary about 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 February 7 and March 25 on PBS. Maestra, thanks so much for being back with us. Hope to speak with you soon.

ALSOP: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Scott.


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