MOVIE OF THE WEEK January 28, 2022: THE CONDUCTOR
Tenacious, focused, persistent, and tireless in her pursuit of her dream, Marin Alsop is the subject of Bernadette Wegenstein’s upbeat documentary The Conductor. The first woman to lead a major American symphony orchestra, Alsop has fought tooth and nail for every achievement in her impressive career, subverting the patriarchy as often as possible and using her success to lift others from traditionally marginalized groups up along with her. Her story is absolutely compelling.
Wegenstein lays out the facts of Alsop’s life in a straightforward way, mixing talking-head interviews with the expected archival footage and news clips as she traces Alsop’s path from a music-loving childhood to her ascendancy on the podium. But the tale Wegenstein weaves out of these materials is anything but ordinary. Inspired by seeing the legendary Leonard Bernstein in concert, Alsop recounts how she knew from an early age that she wanted to be a conductor, and she never let anyone convince her that she couldn’t do it — even though plenty (including her own parents) tried.
As chronicled in the film, the litany of sexist responses to Alsop’s ambitions is long and frustrating. She was told that women lack the physical conditioning to effectively conduct an orchestra. That women are too emotional for the task. That her female body would be distracting to concertgoers. All of which, as she would be the first to tell you, is absolute hooey. So she kept trying, kept studying, kept persisting, eventually becoming Bernstein’s protege and the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. And every step of the way, she found opportunities to give back, mentoring other young would-be conductors, establishing the ORCHKids music program for underserved youth in Baltimore, and providing all of those who work with her a safe space in which to make mistakes and learn from them.
While Wegenstein pays more attention to Alsop’s professional life than her personal one, interviews with her partner, Kristin Jurkscheit, and candid at-home footage of both women with their son, offer more evidence of Alsop’s warm, down-to-earth personality. “Conducting is connecting,” she says early in the film, and The Conductor makes it very clear that this is the philosophy that drives her. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Pam Grady: The life and career of conductor Marin Alsop comes into sharp focus in Bernadette Wegenstein’s insightful documentary. At its base, the film is a biography, tracing Alsop’s life from her girlhood as the gifted daughter of two classical musicians through her education and detour into leading an all-women swing band to her time spent with mentor, Leonard Bernstein, to her rise as the first woman to lead a major orchestra. But it is about so much more than that, delving into the obstacles she faced in a sphere that objected to her gender and how her smashing of the glass ceiling has improved opportunities for women in the classical field while not entirely eliminating ingrained misogyny. The film also highlights Alsop’s lifetime of paying it forward, mentoring a new generation of young women and men who want to follow her in her footsteps to the podium and providing music lessons and the chance to perform to underserved Baltimore youth through the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra ORCHkids program. The Conductor is a marvelous introduction to a truly remarkable woman.
Marilyn Ferdinand Now that I’ve met her through director Bernadette Wegenstein’s engaging documentary, The Conductor, Marin Alsop has joined my shortlist of people with whom I’d most like to share a bottle of wine. Alsop made history in 2007 by being named to lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra—the first woman ever appointed as music director of a major U.S. orchestra. When she stepped down from that position last year, that left exactly no women at the helm of a major U.S. orchestra. Yet she works generously to help other women follow in her footsteps through teaching, mentorships, and the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship, co-named for the Japanese businessman who funded the creation of an orchestra for Alsop to lead. The Conductor is a detailed exploration of Alsop as both a person and an irresistible force who met the immovable object of the classical music establishment and punched a hole in it. Like me, she was entranced by Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts and turned her idolization of the conductor into a working relationship and mentorship that opened doors. Her commitment to raising up downtrodden communities and discouraged musicians (Baltimore’s OrchKids, the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra) mark only some of the enormous contributions of her extremely useful and inspiring life. Marin Alsop is a national treasure who now has a documentary worthy of her.
Leslie Combemale So many people think that the fight for equality is over, and women are welcome with open arms in all fields of endeavor. Yet, it was only in 2007 that The Conductor subject Marin Alsop became the first woman to hold the position of music director with a major American orchestra, becoming the 12th with the title at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. To this day, she is still the only female conductor heading a major American orchestra. Read full review.
Susan Wloszczyna: Maria Alsop is 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. Read full review
Jennifer Merin The Conductor is documentary filmmaker Bernadette Wegenstein’s joyful biodoc about Maestra Marin Alsop, the first female conductor to direct a major American symphony orchestra. The archival footage of Leonard Bernstein and other luminaries who mentored Alsop is rare and wonderful. The clips of Alsop’s great symphonic performances are brilliant. Marin Alsop, her story and Bernadette Wegenstein’s engaging documentary are truly inspirational. I suspect, expect and hope that this film will lift your spirits, as it did mine. Read full review.
Nell Minow: Bernadette Wegenstein wisely lets her subject take center stage so that we can enjoy spending time with Marin Alsop. It is fascinating to go behind the scenes and learn more about what makes a conductor but even more engaging to listen to Alsop talk about how she got where she is and what matters most to her. Her gratitude to Leonard Bernstein and those who supported her dream and her straightforward acknowledgment of those who tried to stop her because they could not imagine a woman leading an orchestra are important, but the highlights are her scenes with her students, her family, and the musicians she leads to thrill audiences all over the world.
Loren King The Conductor is an illuminating portrait of Marin Alsop, distinguished orchestra conductor, protégée of Leonard Bernstein, and the first woman to serve as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Bernadette Wegenstein’s supremely entertaining film succeeds as a compelling portrait of the artist. But it is about so much more: an inside look at the rigors and politics of the classical music world that denied Alsop opportunities because of her gender and how the low-key but tenacious Alsop achieved her dream despite the obstacles. Read full review.
Sandie Angulo Chen: As a NYC transplant to Maryland, it’s hard not to know about the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s trailblazing former conductor Marin Alsop, who was the top baton at the BSO for 14 years. Director (and Johns Hopkins professor) Bernadette Wegenstein’s biographical documentary The Conductor about the pioneering musician and conductor reveals how difficult a path it was for the determined Alsop (a brilliant, Juilliard-trained violinist) to step into the role of conducting. As one of the interviewees explains – it would have statistically been easier for her to become the head of state of a G7 country than the conductor of a renowned orchestra. Alsop, who’s also queer, is depicted as a remarkably generous woman whose ego doesn’t keep her from helping and teaching other women (and men of color) the ropes of assuming the job. Wegenstein’s documentary is reminiscent of PBS-commissioned films about extraordinary individuals, and it’s an insightful tribute to a woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Liz Whittemore The Conductor tells the life story of Marin Alsop, the first woman to direct a major American symphony orchestra. Her fearless and determined nature leads her to fight against toxic masculinity, eventually studying under the brilliant Leonard Bernstein. Becoming a dedicated, passionate teacher with an unrelenting can-do attitude, Alsop has become a brilliant role model for generations to come. Seeing Marin lose herself in her work is something special. There is an intimacy and pull to the film, especially for anyone who has studied performance. It is deliciously visceral. Director Bernadette Wegenstein understands that representation matters. Marin Alsop’s life story serves as a shining example of talent and determination. The Conductor‘s celebratory nature deserves a standing ovation. Brava.
Cate Marquis The Conductor is Marin Alsop, the first woman conductor of a major American orchestra, and director Bernadette Wegenstein’s delightful, inspiring documentary about this remarkable, likable, determined female musician. When Alsop was young, she attended a children’s concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein, in which he spoke directly to the young audience about the music. Bernstein instantly became her hero, later her mentor, and she formed the ambition to become a conductor. The problem: everyone told her women couldn’t be conductors – everyone except her musician father. The only child of two musicians, it was assumed she would be a musician too but Alsop took a path to that distinctly her own. In this fine, well-crafted documentary, we follow that astounding, uplifting journey, largely narrated by the charming, talented, relentless Marin Alsop.
Title: The Conductor
Director: Bernadette Wegenstein
Release Date: January 27, 2022
Running Time: 90 minutes
Screenwriter: Maria Alsop voiceover
Distribution Company: Cargo Film & Releasing
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
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Edited by Jennifer Merin