Marin Alsop in The Conductor.
In the conservative world of classical music, one rule remained steadfast all the way into the 21st century: women were not allowed to be conductors. It seems the unlikeliest glass ceiling of all, and yet it took until 2007 before a woman was named lead conductor and music director of a major symphony orchestra. That woman was Marin Alsop, and she didn’t stop there.
Born to working musician parents who had as many as four gigs in a day, Alsop was (in her own words) neglected as a child and forced to basically fend for herself at the age of 3. She was drawn to the violin, but it was a trip to see the famed Leonard Bernstein at the tender age of 9 that lit a match inside her: she wanted to conduct. Unfortunately, her violin teacher became the first of many, many, many people to tell young Marin that women simply were not allowed to be conductors. But as she progressed through her musical education, Alsop made her own luck. She started an all-woman swing band, then used that as a springboard to establish her own orchestra, then earned the opportunity to study with Bernstein himself, then won a MacArthur “genius” grant. After decades of striving, she scored the position as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, bringing it acclaim and success it hadn’t seen in years. While still directing in Baltimore, she became the principal conductor of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, taking the group on hugely successful tours of Europe and establishing it as the premiere orchestra in Latin America. With the São Paulo Symphony, she became the first woman to conduct at London’s storied The Last Night of the Proms. She even invaded the birthplace of classical music as the first woman conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Even if all The Conductor tried to be was a summary of Marin Alsop’s groundbreaking résumé, it’d be necessary viewing. But director Bernadette Wegenstein does one better by showing Alsop at work, both as a conductor and as an instructor teaching the next generation of conductors how to forge their own path. What comes through clear as day is just how deeply Alsop understands music on a technical level, on an emotional level, on a philosophical level. The copious interviews with Alsop are wonderful; she’s genial, funny, and insightful in equal measure, and realistic about the nonsensical walls she had to knock down without having been subsumed by bitterness in the process. Her love and enthusiasm are infectious to her students and the world of music is so clearly benefitted by her presence that it’s mind-boggling anyone ever stood in her way. The Conductor serves as her well-deserved victory lap. | Jason Green
The Conductor is available for home viewing as part of the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival running March 6-13, 2022. Individual films are $15 to view while all-access passes for the festival are $98, and viewers must be in the state of Missouri to watch the films. For a full list of films or to purchase tickets, visit jccstl.com/arts-ideas/st-louis-jewish-film-festival/