Many Baltimoreans will remember the inaugural season of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s charismatic music director Marin Alsop. The year was 2007. Before her arrival, the BSO was recovering from some financial woes and eager to turn the page on a new chapter. Alsop’s arrival was the injection of enthusiasm that the organization needed.
BSO leadership heralded her appointment as the history-making first female music director of a major American orchestra. The BSO promised that the Maestra would usher in a new era of access and inclusivity, and to make good on this promise, BSO leaders made available all subscription tickets for a flat $25. When these reduced-rate tickets first went on sale, the line of patrons in front of the ticket office of the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall snaked around the block. Alsop responded by doing something that typifies her approachable style: She walked up and down the queue and handed out doughnuts.
“I said, ‘It’s a long line. Let’s get them some doughnuts! I’ll feed everyone!’” recalls Alsop with a laugh. “That was so emotional because it showed me the kind of support for and interest in the BSO that existed in Baltimore. That moment for me captured the feeling that something exciting was about to happen.”
In fact, many exciting things have happened during Alsop’s 14-season tenure helming Maryland’s largest arts organization and one of the world’s premier orchestras. Under her leadership, the BSO produced 14 recordings. She showcased rising young talent and programmed new music and lesser-performed works. She led the BSO’s return to touring, performing seven times at New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall, embarking on a West Coast tour in 2012. The BSO’s celebrated tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland in 2018 culminated in a performance at the world-renowned BBC Proms festival.
“Marin continued the BSO’s tradition of excellence and innovation in the industry and further established its international recognition, especially with the 2018 U.K. and Ireland tour,” recalls BSO Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Tonya McBride Robles.
BSO percussionist and chair of the Players Committee Brian Prechtl agrees. “Marin has sharpened the orchestra’s precision and has pushed us to widen our repertoire of contemporary music, while honing our interpretations of the gems of the orchestral canon.”
In short, the BSO sounds better than ever.
Music for All
For many music directors, artistic success would be enough. But not for Alsop. The idea that art is for all and should be attainable to all has also always been paramount.
“When I first arrived in Baltimore, I felt that the Orchestra was on an island—and not a very well-visited island,” Alsop says. “Even though the BSO was very good, the community didn’t feel invested. I wanted to open the doors wide to the community.”
And so she did. Through innovative programming, such as the new “Off the Cuff” series that claims to “demystify classical music” through commentary from the conductor, Alsop helped introduce new audiences to classical music. She created the BSO Academy, where adult amateur musicians spent a week learning from and performing alongside the BSO members. She even veered into nonmusical community events such as the Women of the World (WOW) Festival that the BSO produced in 2012, in which women leaders gathered at the Meyerhoff for a symposium on causes important to women.
Maximize Every Opportunity
The 2020-2021 season marks the end of Alsop’s fantastic tenure. In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic and limits on indoor gatherings, the BSO has admirably assembled a citywide virtual and outdoor Marin Festival to honor her legacy. The festival culminates in a live virtual gala celebration featuring legendary soprano Renée Fleming on a June 19 broadcast on Maryland Public Television (MPT).
The BSO has become quite adept at pivoting to make the best of a tough situation. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 was only the latest setback for the 105-year-old BSO. One year prior in 2019, BSO management and musicians endured a contentious contract negotiation. Then COVID-19 hit, causing the BSO to cancel the entire 2020-2021 season. Remarkably, the BSO announced in August 2020 that management and the musicians had reached a new five-year contract.
Even the pandemic presented an opportunity for the BSO to upgrade its video equipment and launch a new virtual series, BSO Sessions—an hour-long docuseries. To Alsop, the BSO’s century-long knack for rising again despite the odds stacked against it is a trait it shares with its hometown.
“I think that the BSO’s struggles really reflect the struggles of the city. As soon as you feel like you’re on the upward trajectory, something else falls,” says Alsop. “But I think this is also a testament of the perseverance and tenacity of not just of the Orchestra, but the people of Baltimore. I’m proud of what we were able to achieve with very limited resources. In that way, the BSO is sort of a microcosm of the City of Baltimore: Whatever we were given, we maximized every opportunity.”
Perhaps that’s why Marin Alsop has felt so at home in Baltimore with the BSO these last 14 years. She, too, has always made the most of every opportunity as a conductor. In 2021, even after nearly four decades have passed since Alsop first embarked on her conducting career, she remains one among a handful of well-known female conductors in the world.
“I’ve always understood that opportunities for me in this field were going to be fewer and further apart, so I tried to maximize every opportunity to its fullest,” said Alsop. “I tried to also do that for the BSO.”
A Legacy of Music Education
Creating opportunity was the impetus for the program that embodies Maestra Alsop’s vision for Baltimore, a city that has struggled for decades under the weight of systemic poverty and escalating crime. Upon arriving in Baltimore, Alsop began asking the question of the BSO and herself, “What would happen if we created opportunity for youth in Baltimore City?”
Eventually, the answer led to the creation of OrchKids. Modeled after El Sistema, the Venezuelan orchestral training program that uses music to create social change, Marin and the BSO launched OrchKids in 2008 at a West Baltimore public school for a pilot class of 30 elementary students. Today, OrchKids provides more than 1,600 students with during- and after-school music education at 10 sites across Baltimore City.
“A lot of people misunderstand Baltimore,” says OrchKids Executive Director Raquel Whiting Gilmer. “They see its challenges, but they don’t see the diamonds all over. Marin understood Baltimore immediately! She knew music could provide opportunities and open doors.”
Lynette Fields’ children are among the thousands who credit Alsop and OrchKids for the opportunities they afforded them, which include traveling the world at a young age and attending a prestigious college.
“I think OrchKids saved a lot of kids, even down to mine,” says Fields. “My kids grew up with Miss Marin, so we consider her a family member. I want to say that we thank her and appreciate everything that she has done for my family.”
The greater Baltimore community echoes Fields’ thanks to Marin Alsop for a job well done.