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Conductor Marin Alsop on her concerts exclusively featuring works by female composers

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Maestra Marin Alsop is in the great city of Chicago this weekend to make a statement about women in classical music - there aren't enough. Marin Alsop, thanks so much for joining us again.

MARIN ALSOP: Yeah. Great to be with you, Scott. Thanks.

SIMON: Why aren't there more women conductors? Why don't - or composers. Why don't we hear about them?

ALSOP: Well, it's very strange. You know, it's more likely that a woman would head a G-7 nation than lead a major American orchestra.

SIMON: That is stunning.

ALSOP: Things are changing. I think the #MeToo movement really opened a lot of doors. So now I'm seeing a lot more opportunities for women. And let's hope that those will sustain through the years and really into the industry.

SIMON: Tell us about the concert you're leading with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra - two concerts featuring three pieces, all of them composed by women. Is there a kind of theme or thread that you see runs through them?

ALSOP: All three pieces have a literary connection. The main piece on the program is by Julia Wolfe, and it's called "Her Story." And this is a piece about the Equal Rights Amendment, which first came into play in 1923, and believe it or not, to this day, has still not been passed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HER STORY")

CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND LORELEI ENSEMBLE: (Singing).

ALSOP: And it's pretty shocking that we can live in a country like ours and not have that kind of equal rights statement in our Constitution.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIA WOLFE'S "HER STORY")

ALSOP: This is a piece that is addressing the issues of discrimination and the barriers that face women. And some of the text is, you know, unruly, unloving, unmarried, un - this is the complaint about women throughout history. They're un-blank.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HER STORY")

CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND LORELEI ENSEMBLE: (Singing) Unstable. Unruly. Unloving.

ALSOP: And it's very, very effective, very strong, and I think everyone that comes will be really wowed by the piece.

SIMON: One of the pieces you'll lead is "This Midnight Hour" from the composer Anna Clyne.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANNA CLYNE'S "THIS MIDNIGHT HOUR")

SIMON: Oh, my.

ALSOP: Wonderful piece, huh?

SIMON: Yeah. Help us understand this maelstrom into which we're inserted.

ALSOP: You know, so this is a piece depicting a poem that's all about motion and dancing. And, you know, we hear references to folk themes. Anna loves to do that, to weave in the past into the present. And it's a very dynamic piece, lots of rhythmic drive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANNA CLYNE'S "THIS MIDNIGHT HOUR")

ALSOP: Her music is extremely engaging in that way.

SIMON: I've got to be the probably millionth person to ask you about "Tar."

ALSOP: (Laughter) Oh, gosh.

SIMON: This is the movie starring Cate Blanchett as a major symphony conductor. Came out last year, and you are cited as, well, obviously, the precedence-setting conductor that you are. Is it a chore? Is it a burden? Is it just an irritation to be a historic precedent-setting example?

ALSOP: Well, probably depends on what day you ask me that question, but I think generally, it's a privilege, and I'm so happy to be in a position to try to open doors for future generations. There's also a burden that you have to carry when you're the, quote-unquote, "first," you know, because you can never escape that label. So there's always baggage...

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: ...That you have to drag around with you. But again, I think it's a small price for the incredible opportunities that I have to try to inspire and give hope for women coming up through the field.

SIMON: Of course, we should explain, you took over the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007. You're now chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Orchestra, conductor of honor at the Sao Paulo Symphony and the Ravinia Festival...

ALSOP: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Right there in Chicago. In your experience and from what you may have heard from others over the years, what are some of the barriers women encounter?

ALSOP: Well, I think conducting is quite specific because it's not like playing the violin. You can't practice your instrument whenever you want. You know, you have to have a chance in front of the orchestra - unless you have 20 or 40 friends come over every day, I suppose. But, you know, when you only have one opportunity, it's very hard to take chances because, you know, you don't want to blow that opportunity.

So I think getting experience and making mistakes - one of the key components to - in my opinion, anyway - to finding success is being able to make mistakes and learn from those. We learn so much more from those mistakes, and that's why I started the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship in 2002, was to try to create a safe environment for women to try things and find a community to talk to. For composers, it's similar, because they have to hear their work brought to life by the orchestra, and then they have to be able to have a chance to tweak it, change, edit, do these things. So I'm happy to see so many more women composers being represented.

SIMON: When you're conducting pieces like this in a program like this, how do you hope people might be affected? Is it enough just to be transported by the music, or you want something else?

ALSOP: I think that it's always enough to be transported by the music. But I also think if it can open a door to discussion or to talking to your daughter who you brought to the concert, you know, or your - you know, about the history of women in leadership roles, about the idea. You know, it's all in our perspectives, of course. And when people don't see women, don't see people of color on the podiums of the world, they don't realize that that's an option. So it's really, really important to get that discussion going, I think.

SIMON: Maestra Marin Alsop conducts a program of all-women composers this weekend with the great Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Marin, thanks so much for being back with us. Can't wait to talk to you again. Have a wonderful weekend.

ALSOP: Thanks so much, Scott, and Happy New Year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.