I’m glad to read in a Sunday newspaper that Latin passion is due to come to the Proms on Wednesday. Marin Alsop. the American conductor, shattered more than 100 years of inequality when she became the first woman to lead proceedings at the Last Night of the Proms in 2013. This week, she returns triumphantly to the Royal Albert Hall with the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and fully intends to bust another stereotype – that Europeans are superior to everyone else when it comes to creating and performing classical music.
‘Last time we came to the Proms people were surprised by the world-class musicians of this orchestra,’ she smiles. ‘I think they’ll be even more amazed this year.’ Alsop has been music director of the orchestra since 2012 and like a benign and proud mother she refers to them in glowing terms about the unique qualities which they will bring on Wednesday night to one of the most important musical venues in the world. ‘They’re very devoted to the work, yet still maintain their identity in terms of bringing that Latin sense of passion and emotionality to the table.’
With a programme showcasing some of Brazil’s finest composers, from Villa–Lobos to the contemporary Marlos Nobre, their summer tour in Europe (the orchestra have just played at Edinburgh’s International Festival and travel to Lucerne after their Proms appearance) is ‘an enormous opportunity for us to connect with the broader world.’
Growing up in New York City, Alsop, 59, did not see any women on orchestral podiums. However, she remembers being taken by her musical parents to a young people’s concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein and becoming ‘obsessed’. She was nine years old. ‘It was a religious calling. I never even questioned it.’
In those days, female maestri were as rare as hen’s teeth, but Alsop says ‘I did not think about the gender issues. Bernstein was my idol and my hero and then he became my teacher and I had parents who were incredible role models, particularly my mother, who believed that you can do anything you want to in life.’
Her exceptional career does seem to be forged on such principles. When New York’s Juilliard School rejected her for their post-graduate conducting programme, she founded her own orchestra, Concordia, and honed her craft with them. When the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony rebelled at her historic appointment as their Music Director, she simply put her head down and got on with the job. Ten years on, Baltimore is considered one of the most impressive symphony orchestras in the world and has renewed Alsop’s contract not once, but twice, and she will be there until at least 2021.
When asked if she ever felt a victim of prejudice, she carefully replies: ‘I don’t think in terms like that. Everyone’s probably a victim of prejudice to one degree or another and there are certainly many people who are more mistreated for the wrong reasons than I am. So I feel mostly privileged.’
She’s excited about showing off the Sao Paula orchestra this week. ‘Brazil has a very rich musical heritage and their composers have a wonderful way of blending the popular idiom into their classical works. Some classical conductors would be horrified at the prospect of bringing anything “popular” to the classical concert hall. Well, I think when we let down those barriers there can be an incredible hybrid that can connect people to our art-form in a much deeper and more relevant way.’ She counters: ‘I like the idea of not so many barriers and boundaries between things.’
What a foresighted conductor she has proved to be! The fact that she was tutored by Bernstein, her hero and idol, speaks volumes about a lady who has become remarkable in her own way. Bernstein happens to be my hero also. Having met him on one occasion, at a launch party of Quartet’s book Hashish, in September 1984, we seemed to have clicked congenially and the memory of that encounter remains with me to this day.