A Celebration for Women Everywhere
Victory amidst a broken system and flawed process
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra said yesterday that it had closed a deal with Marin Alsop, announcing that she would take over as its music director in 2007 on a three-year contract.
--Daniel J. Wakin,
"Baltimore Hires Director Over Objections of Musicians,"
The New York Times, July 21, 2005
In 1989, Peggy and I were on a plane bound for the World Curling Championships in Milwaukee. The captain was a woman, and all the flight attendants were men.
Some of the old members of our curling club who were on the same flight were not happy.
I loved it!
I believe that with very few exceptions, women can do anything men can do--and often a lot better.
Until now, major American orchestras have always been conducted by men with (very) occasional guest appearances by women.
The selection of Marin Alsop to be principal conductor of the Baltimore Symphony--the first woman to hold such a post with a major American orchestra--should be hailed as an occasion for music lovers and feminists everywhere to rejoice.
The deal came within a whisker of falling apart.
To me, music is a total mystery. I deal with words. Musicians work with little black dots.
Conductors can read a full orchestral score--lines of dots and symbols representing dozens of different instruments--and hear the whole thing in their heads.
Arturo Toscannini reportedly was so nearsighted he had to put his nose in a score to read it. As a result, he always conducted from memory and carried in his head an inventory of 600 complete symphonies, operas, concertos oratorios and other assorted works. Think of the money you could save on CDs with a talent like that!
During the years, I have been lucky enough to see a number of great classical conductors work their magic--Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein, George Szell, Pierre Monteux, James Levine and Mstislav Rostropovich, to name a few.
But only once--at the performance of an opera in New Haven--have I been privileged to see a woman conduct. This was the great producer, director and conductor of operas Sara Caldwell, founder of the Opera Company of Boston and the first woman to conduct a performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City (Verdi's La Traviata with Beverly Sills singing the lead).
Marin Alsop, 48, was born in New York, graduated from Yale and earned her Masters at Juilliard. She studied conducting at Tanglewood under Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa, won the Koussevitzky and Stokowski Prizes for conducting in 1989 and has been principal conductor of the Bournemoth Symphony Orchestra in England since 2002. In addition, she has guest conducted a slew of major orchestras including the Philadelphia, National (DC), Minnesota, Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Los Angeles as well as a number of top European orchestras.
In addition, Alsop has an extensive discography ranging from Brahms to Bernstein and Samuel Barber and garnered splendid reviews. A short sample from the Seattle Times:
There is much to admire in her reading of Brahms' First. She is unafraid of slow tempos -- that gorgeous chorale in the final movement, for instance -- and she is not fearful of refusing to exhibit muscle at every turn of the road. There is a sense of organic growth, carefully judged dynamics and a handsome roundness to some of Brahms' familiar tunes. Alsop brings fresh ideas to overworked terrain.
New York Times music critic Anthony Thommasini called her appointment to Baltimore a "barrier-breaking milestone." He wrote:
Though the breakthrough is overdue, I supported the decision for other reasons. Instead of turning to an elderly European eminence, as major American orchestras so often have, the Baltimore Symphony was putting its faith in a 48-year-old American dynamo, a formidable musician and a powerful communicator, a conductor with a vision of what an American orchestra could be in the 21st century. Ms. Alsop has also proved to be a programmer with a knack for mixing old and new, a champion of contemporary music and living composers, and someone who can talk from first-hand experience about the new-music scenes and the standout composers in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and London.
This was thrilling news to everyone--except the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
James Glicker is president of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and in charge of 65 full-time employees, 96 musicians and an annual budget of $26 million.
His musical background includes being director of the Whiffenpoofs at Yale and SVP of marketing for the classical division of Bertelsmann. In the interim, he was a marketing VP at Procter & Gamble, and during the dot-com boom worked with the group that took GeoCities public and then sold it to Yahoo!
The business of leadership
Two weeks ago Colin Powell told an audience that leadership meant building trust and taking care of the people who get the job done.
With an orchestra, it is the musicians who get the job done.
In the Army, sergeants do not choose their lieutenant. Colonels do not meet to choose the general.
In business, employees seldom choose their president.
The music world is different. It is standard for the players to have input regarding who is hired as the conductor under whom they will be making music month in and month out, perhaps for years to come.
In spite of the fact that the Baltimore musicians pleaded with management to keep the final decision open until Thanksgiving, Glicker announced the selection of Marin Alsop in mid-July.
The musicians balked. Apparently it was less a question of Alsop's abilities than about process. "The process has been trampled on and not respected the legitimate artistic views of the musicians," said the chairperson of the players' committee.
On July 17, the musicians issued a statement declaring, "If the Board of Directors makes a decision opposed by a vast majority of the orchestra, all confidence in the current leadership of the orchestra would be lost."
All of this ugliness was duly reported in the media, thus casting a pall on what should have been an exhilarating time for Baltimore.
The ramifications could have been severe. For example, would a subscriber or donor renew knowing the new conductor was an unpopular choice and that the musicians were sullen and resentful?
By causing the musicians--"the people who get things done"--to feel disenfranchised, James Glicker and his board exhibited a massive failure in leadership.
In business--and it must be remembered that Glicker was out of the corporate world--employee dissent seldom makes it into the media. What's more, nobody gives a damn so long as the quarterly financials meet expectations. In business, unhappy employees can resign and troublemakers are fired.
Saved by a gutsy move
Glicker and his board had set Alsop up for failure and she knew it, telling the press, "I was getting e-mails from all over telling me, 'Run from this place.' But… I really understood that it was not personal. It got blown out of proportion."
After five days of disgraceful media brouhaha, Alsop came to Baltimore and went into a closed-door meeting with the orchestra members, acknowledged that problems existed and asked for their support.
"It was my idea," Alsop told the media. "I didn't meet them so I could tell the press. I did it for myself. I wasn't comfortable signing a contract until I could look them in the eye and see if we can make it work."
It worked. The head of the orchestra's player's committee, Jane Marvine, reportedly told Alsop the musicians would always give 110 percent. "She reached out, and we reached out," Marvine said.
Alsop signed the contract to conduct for 14 weeks beginning with the 2006-2007 season.
Baltimore Sun music critic Tim Smith reported that later in an interview she said, "If you have 90 players, you have at least 180 opinions. Musicians are very strong-minded and opinionated people. For me, conducting has never been a popularity contest. If I ever got to the point where I was beloved, I should probably quit."
James Glicker and his board slithered out of a hole because they had the luck to hire not only a consummate musician but also a world-class diplomat.
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