Marin Alsop is a Conductor who has heard the phrase “you can’t do this” more times than she can count. But each time, she has defied the nay-sayers, the classical music establishment, and the critics to go above and beyond what everyone expected to become one of the most respected and prolific conductors working today. She was the first woman to lead a major American orchestra [the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra], the first female principal conductor of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, and the first female chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. She was also the first conductor to be named a MacArthur Fellow.
But this 90-minute documentary is more than just a laundry list of Alsop’s achievements. It’s an intimate look at her life, her struggles, and her triumphs, both personal and professional. It takes viewers from her modest beginnings in New York City, where she lived with her musician parents, to her rejection at 25 by the Juilliard Conducting Program, the creation of her all-female swing band and then her own orchestra at the age of 28, and finally to her many triumphs conducting across three cities and three continents.
Alsop and Leonard Bernstein
It’s also an homage to Leonard Bernstein whom Alsop first saw as a child when Bernstein presented his Young Peoples’ Concerts at Lincoln Center in the 60’s. After watching him in action, she said, “I want to be a conductor.” Many years later, it was Bernstein who actually encouraged her. During her fellowship at Tanglewood in the late 80’s, we see him guiding her through rehearsals, hugging her after an amazing passage, and even sitting with his hands over his eyes after a stunning performance, admitting that he couldn’t tell it was a woman conducting. As Alsop put it, “He gave me permission to be me.”
Nuggets like this give the film its depth and humanity; the use of music throughout, it’s grace and flow. Skillfully weaving together these elements with archival footage, re-enactments, rehearsals, performances, and teaching moments, director Bernadette Wegenstein has created a story that is more than just a bio. It reflects a deep understanding of music and the music business, the changing roles of women in society, and the resilience it takes to succeed. As Wegenstein described it, “The Conductor ultimately becomes a metaphor for passion, leadership, and the role that we all play in giving ‘outsiders’ a chance.”
Sixteen years later, Alsop is still the only American woman to head a major Orchestra. But her legacy may well be something more. In 2008, she founded OrchKids, the Baltimore Symphony’s Educational Program whose aim is to encourage and support at-risk kids in Baltimore City neighborhoods. She is also the founder of the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship, which promotes and nurtures the careers of fellow female conductors. And, as she explains, “The one thing I never want to do is tell a young person you’re not something, you can’t do something, especially when they have a passion for it. ‘Can’t’ is the worst four-letter word ever invented.”
The Conductor opens in NYC on January 27, 2022.
All photos courtesy of Cargo Film and Releasing
Top photo: Alsop conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra