Marin Alsop: Where I went wrong

Marin Alsop: Where I went wrong


norman lebrecht

June 14, 2021

From a far-reaching farewell interview in Baltimore, where she’s stepping down after 14 years:


“If I had it to do all over again, I would not have tried so hard to move the BSO out of the Ivory Tower,” she said. “Sometimes you have to say, ‘OK, this is not where people want to go. Try to enjoy the orchestra and community as much as you can.’”…


In 2005, then-BSO board member Michael Bronfein flew to Denver to evaluate Alsop’s candidacy as music director.

“In the classical music world, the pace of change and willingness to change is somewhat slower than glacial,” Bronfein said. “The search committee’s goal was to repurpose the orchestra for a new audience.

“Marin saw being music director as an opportunity to apply the theories she had developed about using the orchestra to engage the community while also creating great music. It was a really different paradigm, and she had the intellect, confidence and courage to take on the challenges she would face.”

Read on here.


  • Anon says:

    It’s called CLASSICAL MUSIC for a reason. Shut up and play it!
    Please tell people to stop talking like this, it’s so incredibly obnoxious!
    “Marin saw being music director as an opportunity to apply the theories she had developed about using the orchestra to engage the community while also creating great music. It was a really different paradigm, and she had the intellect, confidence and courage to take on the challenges she would face.”

    • Amos says:

      Yes, classical music is fundamentally different than all the other professional arts, businesses and athletic organizations whose CEOs set out not only to provide a quality service but also improve the quality of life in their community. By all means, especially if the orchestra is located in an urban center, let’s keep orchestras insular and while we’re at it Lebron James, shut up and dribble except for that state-of-the-art elementary school you created in Akron OH. Oh, I forgot Comcast providing wifi access to community centers for free also needs to be halted.

      • Piston1 says:

        I’m sorry, are you seriously saying that American orchestras are actually more elitist and insular than contemporary professional sports? You’re joking, right?

        • Amos says:

          My point is that it is absurd to suggest that among influential local organizations that it is somehow inappropriate for a music director and orchestra to engage in community outreach. To fail to do so continues the insular position that orchestras hold/held when they were exclusively led by and catered to the wealthy. Regarding sports organizations, name 1 that does NOT have a community relations group that proactively engages in local outreach. Last, take a moment and evaluate the effects that Lebron James’s efforts have had in his hometown.

    • John Porter says:

      According to that logic, Bernstein shouldn’t have bothered to do his Young People’s Concerts.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts were educational. They were not social engineering community projects to improve living standards or moral awareness or woke or anything, they were about music.

        • Amos says:

          Only if you walk around wearing blinders. Check out the audience of those concerts. It was about informing and he consciously set out to include every demographic living in the NY metropolitan area. Plus don’t forget that these concerts were broadcast on television. Sneer if you like but the intent was much like that of his protege Ms. Alsop.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      There’s no contradiction between playing classical music and engaging the [wider] community.

      • David Rohde says:

        It’s interesting that in the Baltimore Sun article, Marin Alsop asserts that only one musician in the entire orchestra consistently helps out with the OrchKids program that serves almost 2,000 students. This seems to validate a point that both Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times and Leonard Slatkin at this website have made about a flaw in the practice of blind auditions. When you hire people that way, you don’t get a chance to assess the other personal skills of candidates, and one of those skills could be a natural aptitude to participate in genuine and consistent outreach.

        I sympathize with this point of view, and I said so in a recent thread at a Washington-based blog called “Ethics Alarms” run by a guy I know who’s both a lawyer and a theater stage director, and who savaged Tommasini’s point of view in a recent post. Amusingly, the blog host then nominated my contribution as “Comment of the Day,” giving all his regular commenters another chance to disagree with me. Go to Ethics Alarms dot com and enter “Tommasini” in the search box, and both discussion threads should come up.

        All that said, there’s a potential flaw when so much energy on the part of the music director goes to this precise sort of urban youth outreach, when an orchestra like Baltimore does have an intense need to attract a greater age and ethnic diversity of adults in its audience. The BSO did have a financial crisis in 2019 and I can’t honestly say, as someone in the Washington area where the BSO performs once a week at the Strathmore Music Hall, that I ever hear at all about the orchestra beyond my traditional classical music circles. I don’t want to exaggerate this, but by contrast you CAN say that there’s been some new general social buzz, at least a little bit, around Gianandrea Noseda and National Symphony Orchestra – or at least you could say that before the pandemic hit. The bottom line is that if you’re going to do outreach, it can’t just be this “top-down” approach but has to be structured to have a broader impact in the here and now.

        • “… the practice of blind auditions. When you hire people that way, you don’t get a chance to assess the other personal skills of candidates, and one of those skills could be a natural aptitude to participate in genuine and consistent outreach.”

          But most of the musicians were hired the old non-blind way and yet for all those marvelous **personal skills** that must have clinched it for them… they are still not volunteering.

          Assessing whether someone *can teach kids* is way outside the scope of a symphony audition, blind or otherwise.

          • David Rohde says:

            I’m assuming a situation where there are several outstanding candidates for a single open position. Also, I said an additional characteristic COULD be an interest in and, frankly, a relatability to the students in the OrchKids program. There are completely separate kinds of personal skills (on the stage and off) and types of ambassadorship to the wider, not-yet-concert-attending community that I think could be in scope here as well. Still, as someone in the BSO’s region who has been aware of OrchKids for years, I find the disconnect between Marin Alsop’s very heavy promotion of the program and the lack of active help provided by the orchestra itself to be very telling, and a real revelation by the Baltimore Sun.

    • TubaMinimum says:

      Here’s the deal. If orchestras had a business model that could pay its own way, that might be an option. However, they are dependent on the largesse of the community, and as time ticks on, more and more philanthropy types are more interested in giving their dollars to organizations that somehow benefit a larger portion of society. Even businesses who once thought sponsoring orchestras was a great feather in their PR campaign cap no longer see it that way. Also, the amount of government funding you get is directly tied to whether the government thinks you are enriching the lives of a large portion of the population or only a few.

      This is the reality of the business. If it really rankles you that much, I recommend become absurdly rich, and bankrolling a top-flight orchestra with the help of a few other wealthy friends in a city, which was the model back in “the good old days” when music directors and orchestras didn’t have to do much besides shutting up and playing.

      • John Borstlap says:

        The idea that an orchestra is a business is entirely wrong. If classical music is seen as an expensive hobby for the happy few, that is desastrous ignorance, and misunderstanding. This means that the meaning of an orchestra and its role within society has to be entirely reformulated, so that it can be understood for what it really is, a common good and a symbol of the aspirations of a society, of a civilization. It has always been like that, and seeing it as a superfluous hobby is the way barbarians use to look at cultural objects they don’t understand. It’s like a chimpansee trying to read a book.

        That not everybody can benefit from live classical music concerts, is an entirely different subject. To quantify something that can only be qualified, is like using the wrong utensil for the job, like taking a hammer for the dish washing,

      • Anon says:

        Except it’s not a reality. It’s something you’re making up.
        Of course Baltimore’s finances and work stoppage are an excellent reminder of how effective Marin’s strategy was.

      • Piston1 says:

        Again I’m sorry but are you seriously saying that there are no government tax breaks and subsidies for professional sports in this country (not to mention a slew of other businesses, from tech to agriculture to defense)? Are you aware, for example, of the typical state and municipal subsidies for the construction of athletic stadiums in American cities? Are you aware that the NFL did not file Federal taxes from 1942 to 2015? This argument that classical music is “elitist” and “privileged” when in point of fact it’s a respectable, aspirational, middle-class activity that plays a vital role in bolstering communities across this nation, has gotten so shopworn as to be ridiculous.

        • Sam McElroy says:

          Right. And churches. They are far bigger than concert halls, and tax exempt. In fact, most of them look like over-sized concert halls! Concert halls should re-brand themselves as temples to culture, and claim music to be a religious pursuit of spiritual transcendence!

        • PaulD says:

          “Are you aware that the NFL did not file Federal taxes from 1942 to 2015? ” It was NFL headquarters that did not pay taxes; it is a trade association that collects monies and distributes them to teams. The tax burden was transferred to the individual teams. NFL headquarters now pays taxes, which means less money for the teams to share. In other words, there is no real change to what the Internal Revenue Service takes in.

      • NotToneDeaf says:

        I agree with everything you’d said and I’ll go a step further: Many corporations are now seeing supporting an orchestra as a negative – it’s deemed elitist, non-inclusive and “too white.” This trend is also making its way to foundations. At the same time, there’s at least one national survey showing that earned income (ticket sales) for orchestras have dropped from 50% of budget to just below 25% in the past 10 years. The model couldn’t be more broken.

  • SMH says:

    Seems she had a nice career. I wish she would have stopped beating the “I’m the only female conductor” horse over and over. See recent NYT piece. Soooo tired.

  • Nathaniel Rosen says:

    I sympathize with the Maestra’s point of view and hope that her good-faith efforts do not grieve her.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The problem is this:

    “The search committee’s goal was to repurpose the orchestra for a new audience.”

    And that is the world upside-down. A new audience has to be repurposed for the orchestra, or: educational programmes should be organized that could PREPARE new audiences for the art form. Adaptation of classical music to the needs of the modern world or the community always goes wrong, as even Alsopp found-out.

    • MWnyc says:

      OrchKids, among the other things it accomplishes, almost certainly does prepare new audiences for the art form. At least in the US, the best predictor for whether someone will be a classical music audience member as an adult is whether that someone played an instrument in school. So each of the 2,000 kids in that program every year is far more likely to attend and support classical concerts as an adult than their peers will be.

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    Times change. Most (if not all) American orchestras are having to redefine what it is they do and why. As costs go up (primarily labor), new funds have to be found in order to keep up.

    Baltimore has the misfortune of sitting in between Philly and DC. It is a hard place to be in terms of competing with the larger organizations in a city that has not had much financial success in the recent past compared to other financial or technological centers.

    I agree with the board member who wanted to take a chance on someone who had a vision that was different than the other candidates.

    Whether it worked or not is hindsight bias but it would seem that her career opportunities are still in front of her. Working with the CSO at the Ravinia Festival is certainly a step up.

    • David Rohde says:

      Actually, there’s a tremendous amount of wealth between Washington and Philadelphia, and on paper it should be plenty to sustain three major orchestras in that stretch of territory, no matter the city of Baltimore’s current challenges. There’s a statistic floating around that the state of Maryland has more multi-millionaires (or some relevant measure) per capita than any other US state, and I remember that statistic being flogged in articles during the BSO’s 2019 financial crisis as a generic reason why local philanthropists should step up to help. Granted, it’s a bit of a technicality in that half of the Washington suburbs are part of the state of Maryland without having to include the city itself. But then again, the BSO in ordinary times performs once a week in those very Washington suburbs, at the Strathmore Music Hall, so the relevance holds.

      Now here’s the problem: A great deal of that newly created wealth is in the technology field where entrepreneurs have little or no record of supporting the arts, compared to the banking, industrial and consumer goods titans who have traditionally funded cultural organizations in America. Just think of the uber-wealthy tech titans from San Francisco and Seattle and their instinct to try to feed and vaccinate the world and save the planet once they’ve accumulated their billions. There’s absolutely a mini-version of that here on the East Coast, and there’s never going to be a solution until orchestras like Baltimore’s attract a broader adult population to their concerts, just in case any of those new attendees happen to be future tech gazillionaires or some of their best friends. I addressed this issue in a recent Medium article titled “Orchestras, Opera Companies, and the Tech Mogul’s College Roommate,” and if it’s okay with Norman, here’s the link:

  • David A. Boxwell says:

    Trouble and strife between players, aired as dirty laundry, didn’t help, either.

  • sam says:

    Covid has demonstrated the economic and moral truth that orchestras ignore their community at the risk of their own survival.

    You could be the Met, and you could play to your small conservative base and keep programming Zeffirelli’s production of La Boheme until the end of days, but if you have no wider base than that, in times of crisis, you find yourself not being paid for a year, because that vocal small conservative base is but a vocal small minority that doesn’t have the will or the resources to help you out beyond buying their single ticket to La Boheme.

    • Anon says:

      What an idiotic comment.
      The Met’s base isn’t a bunch of single ticket buyers who only buy tickets to La Boheme.
      Nor is that why they weren’t paid for a year.
      The Met has an annual budget of $300 million.

  • Ludwig's Van says:

    There are only 3 ways to sell classical music and keep it alive:
    1) Education
    2) Education
    3) Education
    NOTHING else works!!!

    • Tiredofitall says:

      Absolutely. Well said.

      In the US, for nearly a generation, school music programs have languished. The result is that we see a continuing drop in attendance at classical music performances. Cause and effect – it’s not rocket science.

    • NotToneDeaf says:

      Absolutely agree with you – The problem with focusing on education is that it takes at least a generation for those results to take root and have an impact. Boards (i.e., business leaders) want results NOW and they’re not willing to be patient. So they grab at straws that inevitably fail. And by the time the failure has happened, the board has changed membership yet again (term limits) and no one has to take responsibility for the failure. Except the musicians and the staff – the ones who actually have the longevity and the allegiance to the organization.

  • George says:

    Building future generations of avid listeners can be realized only if the process of doing so is realistic. Tapping into the ” curiosity” aspect at a reasonable age, in an unpretentious, intelligent and engaging manner is attainable. But all of this depends upon the personalities and circumstances involved. If one’s initial experiences with classical music are injected with pompous, affected and overly theatrical personalities, it is quite probable that the experience will have a negative impact, a sense of niche elitism etc…rather than genuine artistic conveyance. The currrent classical scene in my view is overran with personalities and programming that is a substantial part of the problem.

  • fflambeau says:

    A very good and detailed article. Thanks for posting it.

    Unasked and unanswered: what’s next?

    Alsop is still young (64) by conductor standards. I would think replacing the Dude in L.A. makes a lot of sense. Very innovative group. Or, Minnesota.

  • Marfisa says:

    The best way to get everybody interested again in classical music would be for somebody to write a ‘Game of Thrones’-type series about orchestras and their musical directors, their governing boards, their internal and external rivalries and politics, and get somebody like Shonda Rhimes to produce it for NetFlix. There is no lack of colorful and charismatic characters in the orchestral world, and there could be steamy love, murder and mayhem in abundance. And, of course, there would be lots of splendid music. Or has it already been done? (Think of ‘Glee’.)


    The article notes the often-repeated item from Alsop’ biography that she’s the first female music director of a “major” North America symphony. Now, Alsop is a major talent, world-class. And Baltimore is a fine town.

    But Buffalo NY is a fine town too. And its orchestra is a fine orchestra too. And JoAnn Falletta has been Buffalo’s music director longer than Alsop has in Baltimore.

    I don’t get it.
    It seems to be splitting hairs to compare Baltimore to Buffalo. What am I overlooking?

    • Piston1 says:

      Indeed: the way that JoAnn Falletta — who with her dedicated Board and excellent CEO have saved the Buffalo Philharmonic, when many other communities would have left it for dead — has been entirely absent from this conversation is really a mainstream-media embarrassment. And, need I mention that the list of previous music directors of the Buffalo Phil reads like a Who’s Who of great 20th-century conductors; or, lest we forget, their exquisite, Art Deco concert hall? JoAnn Falletta should be included in the next Kennedy Center Honors for what she has done to keep music in America alive.