Marin Alsop, Gender and Race Politics in Music

Alex Ross has written about Marin Alsop, Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony, in The New Yorker. The hire has been hailed as the first woman to conduct a major orchestra in the United States (with “major orchestra” meaning one that plays year-round).

Alsop is a big supporter of new music. Ross writes that “in previous appointments [she] has shown a knack for charming both players and audiences into enjoying music that they think they won’t like. She has become a star, in part, by making composers the stars.” After recent years of financial struggles, Baltimore has gotten on board with the idea that modernizing the repertoire, along with aggressive marketing, can lead to a bigger audience.

It’s noteworthy when Ross writes that orchestras aren’t necessarily sexist in not hiring women conductors. He says that “the classical business is temperamentally resistant to novelty, whether in the form of female conductors, American conductors, younger conductors, new music, post-1900 concert dress, or concert-hall color schemes that aren’t corporate beige.” While Ross is probably correct about the situation today, it would be wrong to think that it never existed.

That last paragraph warrants a whole post (or more) at some point. Also on the burner is a reaction to Ross’s writings on race in The Rest is Noise. Pointing out that racism virtually excluded the participation of blacks in classical music in the U.S., blacks developed their own art form – jazz. After establishing an art of their own, many saw no need to try to gain access to the white world of classical performance. Now, music schools, symphonies and the like are wringing their hands over what to do about their institutions that hardly resemble the rest of American culture.

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