THE CONDUCTOR – Review by Susan Wloszczyna
Watching Bernadette Wegenstein’s doc The Conductor is an uplifting and educational treat as we get to know Marin Alsop. Back in 2007, she broke the glass ceiling of classical music when she achieved her dream of becoming the first ever female to be chosen to be a music director for a major American orchestra — namely the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She also became the first woman to conduct the Sao Paulo Orchestra as well as the first woman to conduct BBC’s Last Night of the Proms. In 2020, she became the first female ever appointed as chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony.
The New York city native and the lonely child of two musicians, Alsop found her calling as a maestra when her dad took her to see one of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic when she was 9. She was mesmerized by how the way he conducted with his body and kept the musicians on their toes. She told her dad that she wanted to learn to conduct. Initially, he didn’t want to disappoint her with the news that “Girls can’t do that.” But later he decided to make amends by gifting her with a box filled with batons.
Alsop would take violin lessons – alas, the piano did not speak to her — and studied at Yale, started an all-women violin swing band, landed at Juilliard and ended up being tutored by Bernstein himself. While conductors can often come off as haughty and aloof, Alsop instead pays it back as she reaches out to children by supporting musical education in under-served communities and has tutored other women in the art of directing 100 musicians to make wonderful music.
Our heroine is also a wonder to watch once she steps onto her podium. Her eyes blaze, her arms move dramatically to mimic the music while her face reflects the emotion of the score. She turns into a kind of fascinating drama queen while in her element. And you can see that the musicians truly respect her. After all, she remains the first and only conductor to ever receive a MacArthur Award.
As New York Times reporter Michael Cooper observes in the doc, “It was easier for a female to become a leader of a G5 nation or a Five Star General than to become a conductor of a major symphony.” Thanks to Alsop’s persistence, she ignored those who told her that girls can’t direct an orchestra. As she says, “Can’t is a four-letter word.” And, yes, the heavenly music will lift your spirits while Alsop and the musicians perform works by Mahler, Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven, Prokofiev and more.