Conductor Marin Alsop inspires arts education group in speech at Playhouse Square

Marin Alsop
The Plain Dealer

By Zachary Lewis 

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Living proof of art's inspirational power came to Playhouse Square Tuesday, in the form of renowned conductor Marin Alsop.

In her keynote address on the 2014 Creative Voices Arts Education Day, the artist relayed how her passion for music led her all the way to the top of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and to the record books. She also spoke of what she's doing now to stoke that fire in others.

"Playing an instrument gave focus to my life," Alsop told a large group organized by the Cleveland Arts Education Consortium. "You have to work at something to become expert at it."

Born to musical parents, Alsop joked that she was brought into the world to play piano for her parents, who played strings. Like her father, however, she gravitated to the violin, and pursued the instrument all the way to the Juilliard School.

Meanwhile, inspired by Leonard Bernstein, Alsop also developed an interest in conducting, only to be informed early on that "girls don't do that." Little could she have known that later she'd go down in history as the first female music director of a major American orchestra.

"I was devastated," recalled the conductor in a video preceding her warmly received speech onstage at the State Theatre. "It felt like the end of my career."

Constrained, too, by the rigors of orchestral life, Alsop branched out on her own. After college, she founded a swing ensemble called String Fever and an orchestra called Concordia dedicated to American crossover music.

Conducting also grew more and more viable, thanks in part to her father's gift of a lifetime's supply of homemade batons. Several applications to the Tanglewood Music Center led to a life-changing encounter with Bernstein, and to directorships in Oregon and Colorado, giving her the bona fides she needed.

"He was my hero," Alsop said of Bernstein. "He exceeded all my expectations. He believed in me."

In Baltimore, pushback by the BSO musicians at her appointment in 2005 led Alsop to address what she called the "dysfunctional" elements of classical music and education.

Beginning with funds awarded her by the MacArthur Foundation, the conductor, who made her Cleveland Orchestra debut in 2011, launched a music program in Baltimore's public schools, connecting players to students and putting instruments in the hands of children who otherwise might never have the chance to take lessons.

It's this, Alsop said, for which she'd most like to be remembered. While many conductors hope to have a long-term impact on the orchestras they lead, Alsop said she'd like her legacy to be generations of talented, educated, music-loving adults.

"Watching kids connect with music, I think that's the greatest thing," she said. "It's our responsibility to create a world that celebrates the best of the human race."