Marin Alsop, from the lawn to the podium

Typical of a major conductor in our jet set age, Marin Alsop, who appears with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, has bases of operation located in a variety of far flung cities.

First is Baltimore, where in September she begins her second year as the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. With her 2005 appointment to the post she became the first female leader of a major American orchestra.  And there’s Santa Cruz, California, where she’s completing her 16th summer directing the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.

Alsop also recently ascended to the post of conductor emeritus with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in England, after completing a six-year tenure and a series of acclaimed recordings there.  And she maintains a home in Denver, where she’s music director laureate of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and where her companion teaches horn and plays in the orchestra.

Alsop, 51, says she got the conducting bug at around age 9 at a Young People’s Concert with Leonard Bernstein, who later became her mentor.  But she probably first developed a taste – or tolerance – for a conductor’s peripatetic life even earlier because of annual July visits with her parents to Saratoga Springs.  Her dad, violinist LaMar Alsop, was concertmaster of the New York City Ballet Orchestra for 30 years and her mom Ruth remains a member of its cello section.

“(Saratoga) was a very idyllic experience as a kid,” Alsop said during an interview in the late spring.  “I remember attending rehearsals, and lying on the SPAC lawn listening to music. There’s nothing like that.”

She’s continued to visit over the years, staying at her folks place and enjoying some of the local sights. “My mom especially likes the horse racing and is friendly with the trainers. That’s a nice contrast to the music part for all of us,” she says.

But the Alsops never stray far from music.

“Growing up as the only child of professional musicians, there’s not a lot of discussion about what you’re going do,” says Alsop, who began piano studies at age 2 and violin three years later. “I had a brief detour as an undergrad at Yale and was thinking about mathematics but ended up transferring to Juilliard for violin performance. My parents are very passionate and led wonderfully fulfilling lives and they wanted me to have the same kind of life experience.”

Alsop and her family will spend the better part of this week in Saratoga. She and her partner of 18 years Kristin Jurkscheit have a five-year-old son, Auden Alsop, and this will be his second time to the area. “He remembers (the last visit) a bit because of pictures but this will be more poignant and memorable,” she says.

Naturally, the boy is already studying music.

“I vowed I’d never do to my kid what mine did to me, but we’re forcing him to play the violin,” says Alsop, adding that he’s recently gotten beyond variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle.”

Although Alsop hasn’t made a judgment yet on his musical promise, she says her son – who bears the same name as the British poet – shows remarkable gifts for language. “You’d know what I mean if you had a conversation with him,” she says.

Alsop has a musical history with Saratoga that’s more than just familial. Before turning to conducting, she was a freelance violinist who gigged with a variety of orchestras, great and small, including the New York Philharmonic and the American Composers Orchestra, as well as in the pit at some Broadway shows and alongside her folks in the New York City Ballet Orchestra. The latter included some summers in Spa City.

Her conducting debut at SPAC came on Sunday July 5, 1992, leading the Ballet Orchestra – sans dancers – in its first ever performance on the SPAC stage. The program included Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” Overture-Fantasy, Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” and an encore of “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Alsop’s relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra dates back even further. She made her debut on a subscription program at age 33. “I was pretty doggone scared,” says Alsop. “They’re one of the great orchestras of the world. They know that and they’re proud.”

But Alsop has returned to lead the Philly on a regular basis and watched its membership take on more musicians her age and younger.

“I feel that the orchestra’s evolving and it has a little bit of a different perspective, though they’re still very established and steeped in tradition,” she says. “Now it’s just fun with a lot of friends, a reunion in a way. I love guest conducting these great orchestras. It’s a dream come true.”

While racking up the frequent flyer miles, Alsop has also received important honors in recent years. In 2005, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called a genius award. And this spring she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in a “2008 class” that includes Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, filmmakers the Coen Brothers and jazz musician B.B. King among others.

Then there’s that ongoing thing about being “the first woman” to do this or that in the field of conducting.

“I am shocked by the fact that in the 21st century there can still be ‘firsts’ for women,” she’s said, ever keeping the focus on the music.

Yet the firsts keep happening. In Milan this past April, Alsop was the first woman to conduct in the 230-year history of La Scala. In the midst of the experience, she wrote the following for her on-line journal:

“The musicians seemed curious and slightly bemused for a few minutes at our first rehearsal and then we quickly got down to the business of making music together and the woman issue was a non starter!”

Originally appeared in the Times Union, August 10, 2008.

Also available in Artists & Activists: Making Culture in New York’s Capital Region.

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