Marin Alsop: American groove and flavour

Marin Alsop simply erupted through the glass ceiling one day, and if it’s up to her that ceiling will stay shattered, forever. Eighteen years after her debut with us, she’ll be back for another concert on 14 June. Alsop is an impassioned advocate for equal opportunities, but above all, she is a passionate musician.
Marin Alsop, image: Adriane White
Marin Alsop, image: Adriane White

In June 2006, Marin Alsop became the first woman to conduct the Concertgebouw Orchestra in nearly a century. She still remembers this historic occasion well, for one thing because her mother had come along to witness it. ‘We had a wonderful trip together. I’ve conducted in the Main Hall several times since then, but I hadn’t worked with the Concertgebouw Orchestra again, until now.’ Now the New York native Alsop is back to conduct Béla Bartók’s vibrant late masterpiece Concerto for Orchestra, which was written in that city, as well as two recent works by American composers, John Adams and Jessie Montgomery (another New Yorker) in a programme full of rhythm and energy.


Fearful Symmetries by John Adams is very dear to me’, says Alsop. ‘Every one of John’s compositions is something new and different, but they all have that American directness, the dance element and a lot of humour. The changes of time signature are phenomenal in this one – it builds and just keeps on building. It’s really a groove piece, with a very American rhythmic vitality, and it puts the winds in the spotlights. And having a saxophone section and a synthesizer group gives the orchestra a fascinating and unique sound.’

‘I try to dish up an interesting menu for the audience.’

American flavour

What has she chosen for an opening piece? ‘I wanted something else that spotlights a part of the orchestra. I think Jessie Montgomery’s Strum is really very good, because it explores the possibilities of the string orchestra in a wonderfully light-hearted way. It’s not an easy piece, but on the other hand it has this huge American flavour. I met Jessie when she was composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. We’re both violinists, so we bonded over that. And I think that her music is innovative and full of imagination.’

A good meal

In a sense, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is American too, since it was composed during the last years of his life in New York. ‘I love the folk music element in Bartók. For me it’s similar to jazz and groove in American music. I think – at least I hope – that all of my programmes, whether it’s conscious or not, have an underlying theme that appeals to people at different levels. You don’t have to lay it on thick; you can see programming as like putting together a really good meal. I try to dish up an interesting menu for the audience, with things they may not have tasted before, that at the same time enhance what they already know.’

‘I love the folk music element in Bartók. For me it’s similar to jazz and groove in American music.’


Someone had to be the first. Marin Alsop was the first female chief conductor of a major orchestra in the United States, South America, Great Britain and Vienna. Her artistic vision and impressive international career have paved the way for many others. By 2013, when Alsop became the first woman ever to conduct a BBC Night of the Proms, many more women had found their way to the upper echelons of conducting. Having more role models results in more ambitious young people, and a real shift has taken place in the last eight or so years. In the words of fellow conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, ‘The floodgates have opened.’

Marin Alsop has been collecting chief conductorships on both sides of the ocean for many years now. In Europe, she enjoys being able to fully focus her energies on the music. ‘In the United States, the job of conductor is much more time-consuming and stressful. You have to find funding, year in, year out. That’s why I’m so happy in Vienna, I don’t have to worry about all those extra things there.’