The biggest lesson from “The Conductor,” now screening at the Denver International Film Festival, (but also a selection at the Austin Documentary Film Festival), is “Don’t tell me I can’t do something.” The individual being told she can’t be a conductor, because she’s female, was Marin Alsop, now conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, and a trailblazer for other female directors.
Director Bernadette Wegenstein quotes Alsop, the first woman to become the conductor of a major American city’s orchestra, as co-parent with spouse Kristen Jurkscheit of their child, “I want my son to be his own person.” She related years of being told no, including showing a copy of a March 27, 1980 rejection letter from Julliard signed by registrar Mary H. Smith. Indeed, at one point, Alsop said she had to either quit Julliard or quit music.
The child of two musicians who grew up in a two-bedroom apartment at Broadway and West 107th Street in New York City, says that she “had to be an adult from the age of three.” Her parents had to travel frequently for their musical gigs and she was an only child.
Marin’s attendance at a Leonard Bernstein Youth Concert when she was nine years old set her off on a quest. “I want to be that. I want to be a conductor,” said Marin after the concert. Her Julliard violin instructor, however, said, “Girls can’t do that.”
Marin described her father as being visibly upset when Marin’s teacher made that remark. He went out and bought her multiple batons and presented them to her in an ornamental box. Leonard Bernstein also came around, as time went by, and became one of her biggest supporters. Another big supporter was Tomio Taki, a Japanese businessman who helped her to form the Concordia Orchestra with $5,000 donations from 10 of his wealthy friends and who remains supportive.
Marin says that, to her, “can’t is “the worst 4-letter word ever invented.”
One of the best things about the documentary, beyond wonderful cinematography by Shana Hagan of a variety of cities, including the Lucerne Music Festival, are the symphonies providing the soundtrack. Supervising sound recordist is Dwayne Dell (with a lot of assistance). Mahler. Shostakovich’s Symphony #5. Aron Copland’s Symphony #3. Bernstein directing. Marin’s “String Fever” group, profiled by Allison Fields of News 4 in New York City. The music is as breathtaking as the cinematography, and both are wonderful.
Obviously, the big theme is to never take “no” for an answer. Marin never did. As she said, “I’d like to turn every struggle into an opportunity.” She always felt that “Conducting is the only thing in life I want to do.” She rails against the institutions that, she said, have this philosophy: “There’s something about breaking a young person’s spirit and building them back in the image they have for you.” Not for Marin, whose success has led to other female conductors at other major orchestras. She says: “I needed individuality.” She repeats that, “You never want to tell them they can’t do something, especially someone who clearly has a passion for it.” Even the New York Philharmonic had to rewrite some of its “rules” about conductor hires and we meet Sylvia Cadaff, who worked as Leonard Bernstein’s secretary for years.
Marin suggests that, “The Old Boys’ network has been there for centuries. We need to form the Old Girls’ network and be there for one another.” While I nodded my head in agreement with this thought, and am happy to report that Marin Alsop has actually taken constructive steps toward this goal, founding a scholarship for female conductors, I wondered what Hillary Clinton and/or Vice President Kamala Harris might say about female support for them in their posts.