Marin Alsop is a firm believer that “music has the power to change lives”. She currently heads two orchestras. She has been Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra since 2007 – and just had her contract extended a second time up to 2021 – while she has led the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra since 2012, bringing them to the BBC Proms for the first time. Both orchestras run inspiring outreach programmes to spread classical music to new audiences. Marin brought the OSESP back to the Proms two weeks ago, but is back again this week to conduct Verdi’s Requiem on the penultimate night of the season. We caught up with her for a brief Q&A before rehearsals began.

Marin Alsop © Adriane White
Marin Alsop
© Adriane White

MP: You return to the Proms this week for Verdi’s Requiem. What are the challenges of performing this work, especially in the Royal Albert Hall?

MA: The challenges in the RAH are related to the size of the venue, the distance of the audience and the distance between the players. Co-ordination and timing will be my challenges in the Verdi. For example, I know that coordinating the offstage trumpets in the Dies irae will be very tricky.

MP: How does having period instruments affect your approach? What does the OAE ‘bring to the party’?

MA: The OAE is a joy to work with. It’s all about the music – phrasing, line, momentum, architecture, color, nuance – it’s fantastic! Our interaction is all music all the time!

MP: You have a great relationship with the Prommers and have conducted the Last Night twice.

MA: Very special evenings, both of them. My favorite memory is that of the warm and welcoming audience at both events.

MP: How did you approach composing your Last Night speeches? Does talking to the audience come naturally?

MA: Talking to audiences is something that I enjoy but, that said, I did have a lot of practise speaking to audiences in my early years: I led a string swing band for 20 years called “String Fever” and, since we performed in clubs and alternative venues, I had to become comfortable with fronting the band in all kinds of situations and speaking to all kinds of audiences.

I work with all of my conducting students on public speaking. The “speeches” that sound the most natural and spontaneous are usually the ones that thought about and practiced the most!

MP: Your Baltimore tenure has been confirmed until 2021 – what do you love about the orchestra? How would you describe its sound?

MA: The musicians are passionate, sensitive and giving. The orchestra accompanies better than any other orchestra around! We have worked on depth and dimension in our sound and now have a wonderful range and palette of colors to serve the masterpieces we perform.

Marin Alsop © Adriane White
Marin Alsop
© Adriane White
MP: Someone who was extremely comfortable chatting to his audience, was Leonard Bernstein, one of your greatest influences. As a pupil of ‘Lenny’, what did you learn from him, both in terms of conducting style and his philiosophy to life and music?

MA: I learned so much from him about music and so much more! He always encouraged me to be true to myself, not imitative but authentic and to always remember that my role is to serve the composer first and foremost. LB believed that music could unite us and bond us and that we, as artists, have an inherent obligation to be good citizens of this world.

MP: Tell us about your orchestras’ outreach work in Baltimore and São Paulo. Did one inspire the other? What have been the successes?

MA: The BSO reaches out to every generation and every community. We have an intensive, after school music program for kids called Orchkids. We started with 30 kids in 2008 and now have 1100 playing instruments. We also have two youth orchestras and reach tens of thousands of kids through our midweek concerts and family programs. For adults we have our “Rusty Musician” initiative and BSO summer fantasy camp called The “BSO Academy”.

In São Paulo the orchestra runs an “Academy” which trains the most advanced musicians from Brazil in a hands on apprentice-like program that involves every aspect of becoming a professional musician. We currently have 20 instrumentalists, 20 singers and four Brazilian conductors in the Academy. The Academy has a 100% success rate of young musicians winning professional positions!

MP: I enjoyed the São Paulo Proms on the television very much. Do the Brazilians approach music-making differently to other orchestras you conduct?

MA: I’m glad you enjoyed the concerts! As you could see, the Brazilians jump in with both feet (and hands!) and give 100% of themselves 100% of the time! They are not afraid to show their enthusiasm and commitment, which I love.

MP: You’ve championed the music of many American composers in concert and on disc. Which young composers should we be listening out for on this side of the Atlantic?

MA: Oh so many wonderful young composers! Mason Bates, Missy Mazzoli, David T Little, Judah Adashi, Michael Kropf...

Marin Alsop © Grant Leighton
Marin Alsop
© Grant Leighton
MP: There’s been a lot of media excitement about the appointment of Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla to the CBSO, mainly because of her gender. You became Principal Conductor at Bournemouth 14 years ago. Are you surprised there’s been so much fuss? Has the classical music world really developed so little in the intervening years?

MA: I’m thrilled for her and for the CBSO but your question, which points out the gap of 14 years between women heading British orchestras, says it all, doesn’t it?

MP: Lucerne Festival’s focus this year was its ‘Prima Donna’ series. How do you feel about ‘positive discrimination’?

MA: It was great to see so many women. I hope next year they invite even more!!

MP: You were involved in masterclasses in Lucerne. What sort of tips do you try and pass on to the next generation of female conductors?

MA: There are certain issues surrounding gesture that affect women differently from men, so that almost always comes up. Conducting is all about gesture and body language, so it’s important to understand how society interprets gestures and how that interpretation differs from men to women.  Another issue that often comes up is the issue of “strength”, or perceived strength, and how to convey strength convincingly.

I am committed to creating as many learning opportunities for women conductors as I possibly can.  In 2002 I started a fellowship for women conductors called the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship (TCCF)

All of our 11 recipients are successfully working in the field – several are American music directors; several are assistants with major orchestras throughout the world; and several have started their own orchestras. We offer support, advice and encouragement throughout their development and I am extremely proud of all of the Taki Fellows!

MP: I’ve seen a few conductors send their batons skywards in recent months. Have you had any embarrassing moments on the podium?

MA: Once a mouse ran through a performance of Mahler 7 in Cologne – that was quite entertaining!

MP: How do you relax between concerts?

MA: I love being home with my family, studying, reading, thinking… or not thinking, too!