Marin Alsop Believes Art Is for Everyone

November 17, 2021  • David K. Gibson

Marin Alsop is no stranger to breaking barriers. For her 14 years as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, she has been an icon of gender equality in a historically exclusionary field—but her virtuosity extends well beyond the podium. She’s established outreach programs for children, for amateur musicians, and for recontextualizing Beethoven, and she’s got plans to gather musicians from around the world in planet-scale performances. Marin Alsop doesn’t think small.

As one of her first duties as the Harman/Eisner Artist in Residence of the Aspen Institute Arts Program, Alsop sat with her immediate predecessor, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater. Their conversation was part of the Institute’s series Conversations with Great Leaders in Memory of Preston Robert Tisch.

“When I first went to Baltimore, I was struck by the fact that the orchestra didn’t even remotely reflect the demographics of the city,” Alsop said. Baltimore was 68 percent African American at the time. She recognized that the barriers to learning an instrument are more than cultural; there’s also the expense of lessons and instruments.

“I thought, well, if kids are unable to start instruments young enough, they’ll never be able to gain the skill set to compete at this level for a major orchestra job.” So she asked her musicians to start a mini-me orchestra where all 91 members mentored children in the neighborhood. Alsop wanted 100 percent participation, but couldn’t offer any extra compensation. At least, until she won a McArthur Fellowship.

How did amateur become a derogatory term, when the meaning of it is passion and love?

She took her now fully-funded program back to the musicians, and they started with first graders in West Baltimore, literally opening up a car trunk full of instruments in a school parking lot. Today, the program has more than 2000 students playing instruments, and several of them have become professionals in music management or music education. “I mean a lot of these kids didn’t anticipate even going on into higher education,” she said. “Having these kinds of opportunities and picturing yourself doing something that you never expected you would do creates a sense of possibility for the future.”

Next, Alsop suggested that the Baltimore Symphony invite non-professional musicians to play with them. After some convincing, an invitation went up on the website, and 400 people signed up overnight. She told her orchestra members that they didn’t even have to play well that day, just have a good time and interact. “The people coming would sit next to my musicians and say to them the words that they need to hear: I wish I could be you,” Alsop said.

That blurring of lines between professional and non-professional has been a theme that runs through Alsop’s advocacy. “How did amateur become sort of a derogatory term, when the meaning of it is passion and love?” she asked. As Covid closed concert halls and moved collaboration online, she found the interaction with her audience of amateurs inspiring. “I think if we can evolve what we’re doing [digitally] it can give our audiences an inside scoop on what’s going on,” she said, “to bring you inside the creative process so that you can be home and maybe you want to come along with me to a symphony rehearsal one morning and sit in the violas.”

Her plans don’t stop there. Alsop’s ideas for a more inclusive classical music world—and a more inclusive world in general—include the creation of a global orchestra, with “participants from everywhere, maybe blurring the line of professional and non-professional, so that everybody could participate.“

Watch the full conversation below:

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