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‘The Conductor’ Documentary About Marin Alsop Premieres at Tribeca Film Festival

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The 2021 Janet & Walter Sondheim Prize Final [...]

The Conductor, a 2021 documentary that intimately details the life and work of Vienna Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop, premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival on Monday, June 14th. Alsop previously served as music director for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and at the time she was the first woman to head a major American symphony. The Tribeca Film Festival is returning to limited capacity in-person screenings this year, but thankfully there are still “At Home” screening options that will keep the premiere accessible for a larger audience. 

Director Bernadette Wegenstein, a filmmaker and professor of media studies at Johns Hopkins University, met Alsop in Baltimore City, where they both live and work. An Austrian-born linguist, author, and critically acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Wegenstein’s work merges her interests in “feminist thought and human-centric storytelling.” She has directed three other documentaries, including Made Over in America, See You Soon Again, and The Good Breast.

Wegenstein grew up in Vienna and therefore “by nature with classical music,” as she describes it, which led her to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and to Alsop. Wegenstein was captivated by Alsop and drawn to her artistry, especially as it reconnected her with her own musical Viennese childhood. “I was completely taken by Marin’s conducting,” says Wegenstein. Alsop’s work “reconnected me with my Viennese past and that feeling that classical music—or that any music really can give you—of connecting so deeply to the emotions told in the music.” The documentary is inspired by both Baltimore and Vienna and it traverses both with the director’s own personal perspective. 

 

Alsop grew up in New York City, where she naturally gravitated towards music at the encouragement of her professional musician parents and with training at Juilliard. At just 9 years old, Alsop had set her sights on conducting, but she continually faced roadblocks in a field dominated by men. She was repeatedly denied entry into the field, but was inventive in forging her own opportunities. After being rejected from the Juilliard Conducting Program at age 25, Alsop started an all-female swing band called String Fever, which performed in and around New York City. Three years later, still committed to her dreams of conducting, Alsop founded an orchestra of her own at age 28, blazing the path for herself and for conductors since.

Alsop has shattered many glass ceilings throughout her career, becoming the first woman to lead a major American symphony as music director for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, then the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, and then presently the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. The documentary reaches deep into the exclusion Alsop has faced in her chosen field, but it is triumphant—as is the conductor herself—in considering her self-advocacy and the impact she has on her students.

 

Marin Alsop with Jonathan Rush, then a Peabody graduate student, now the Assistant Conductor for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

In the documentary, archival footage and photographs of Alsop as a child and young adult complement dream-like sequences of the Vienna Concerthouse, setting the stage of her life as she fought for her place in the field. Cut across scenes of Alsop working with her conducting students, we as viewers come to understand how her contemporary practice is continually shaped by and centers those who have been historically excluded from the field. She engages her students with vigor but also with patience, led by the idea that marginalized people “need the opportunity to fail” while supported by close communities in their fields. 

Importantly, Alsop has internalized her own experiences into her work ethic and her mentorship. One of her students describes Alsop’s mentorship as “seeing something in him that he didn’t even see himself”; the student also speaks about the inspiration of seeing someone who has been traditionally excluded from the field take control of it. Ultimately, Alsop is clear that she is fueled and supported by her close partnerships, mentorships, and communities of women. The documentary reflects this by showing the enduring work she does to build these communities for herself, her family and friends, and her students.

The Conductor is a powerful testament to investing in yourself and pursuing long-held aspirations, evoking childhood dreams, struggle, and achievement through a touching score and energetic storytelling. Across Baltimore, São Paulo, and Vienna, Alsop has disrupted an elitist classical orchestra tradition, embodying leadership with fierce passion.

 

*****

Tribeca Film Festival runs June 9–20, 2021. Tickets for at-home screening of The Conductor will be available starting on Tuesday, June 15th, at this link.

Images courtesy of Bernadette Wegenstein

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