Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

On top of the podium: Meet Marin Alsop, the First Lady of the Proms

By Lauren Said-Moorhouse, for CNN
September 20, 2013 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
(Files) Marin Alsop leads the Filarmonica della Scala orchestra, at the Milan opera house.
(Files) Marin Alsop leads the Filarmonica della Scala orchestra, at the Milan opera house.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Conductor Marin Alsop is the first woman to preside over the Last Night of the Proms
  • "It's really shocking that it's 2013 and there are still 'firsts' for women," Alsop says
  • In 2008, launched "OrchKids" which provides music education and mentorship for youngsters

Editor's note: Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time. Each month, we meet two women at the top of their field, exploring their careers, lives and ideas.

London, England (CNN) -- When conductor Marin Alsop stepped into a packed auditorium at London's Royal Albert Hall, she became the first woman to stand atop the podium on the Last Night of the Proms' -- a first in the event's 118-year history.

Closing Britain's prestigious summer-long concert series is no small feat. During the eight-week run, thousands of music lovers flock to the Proms each night to hear performances from the world's most renowned orchestras.

Though the honor is not lost on the 56-year-old Baltimore native, she's far from impressed by the slow progress of achieving gender equality inside the concert hall.

Read: 'Slumdog' star: Empowering girls

"It's really shocking that it's 2013 and there are still 'firsts' for women," Alsop says.

Melinda Gates on lifting women's voices
Space archaeologist reveals lost worlds
The baroness and the jazz musician

Still, she believes her historic appointment provides an ideal opportunity to hold a broader discussion about inequality and help the next generation.

Sporting a striking red suit, she exudes an unflappable sense of confidence when we first meet in the lounge of her swanky London hotel just a few weeks before the big performance.

"We sort of pat ourselves on the back in our developed countries, ticking off that equality box...but when you look to young girls being shot for going to school [like Malala] this is unacceptable.

"If we don't speak out now about this kind of inequality, the inequality in our own societies continues and we have to keep discussing it and keep bringing it to everyone's attention," she explains.

Her mood shifts from serious to excitement when she reflects on the moment Proms director Roger Wright first asked her to conduct the final night.

"The 'first woman' thing was missing for me," she admits. "[Wright] said, 'You know it will be a historic evening because you'll be the first woman.' And I said, 'No, you've got to be kidding.'"

Read: The female force that is Melinda Gates

Fast-forward a year and her appointment to close the Proms has received copious amounts of press attention in the UK and abroad.

But with so few well-known leading female conductors in the classical world, an ever-constant sexism row looms just off stage. Most recently, Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko comments sparked outrage when he told Norwegian newspaper Afterposten that "Men make better conductors."

Petrenko, the principal conductor of the UK's National Youth Orchestra and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra went further saying a "sweet girl on the podium can make one's thoughts drift towards something else" while suggesting that "when women have families it is difficult to be as dedicated as is required in this business."

Petrenko has since clarified that he was referring to the classical music landscape in Russia and that he was misrepresented, according to reports from the London Evening Standard.

Tina Brown: 'Taking risks comes easily'

Despite the latest incident, Alsop says that things are slowly getting better for women in the industry.

Ilene Gordon: Dare to be different
Richer than Trump or Oprah

"I certainly think the landscape is more welcoming. But the question as to whether that will translate into more women on the top podiums of the world with the major orchestras, I have no idea."

Born into a family of musicians, Alsop says she was always destined for a career in the arts.

Her parents started her on the piano at 2 years old. Just four years later, she graduated to the violin.

But it wasn't until age 9 when she witnessed a performance by famed American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein that she realized her true calling -- to become a conductor.

Follow CNN Leading Women on Twitter

She would go on to study her bachelor's and master's degrees in violin at Yale University and at The Julliard School, respectively. Later, Alsop developed as a conductor under Bernstein, her mentor.

As the first woman to lead a major U.S. orchestra, to this day, Alsop credits her mentor for teaching her "to put the music first."

Amongst her many achievements, she has been with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as music director since 2007. As for her international work, she's led London's Royal Philharmonic, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and since last year, the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra for which she is now the principal conductor.

"I wanted to be a conductor when I was nine ... it seems like overnight success but it was at least a decade of really hard work. Not dreaming that it could be a reality, that this could be my career and my life," she says.

I wanted to be a conductor when I was nine ... it seems like overnight success but it was at least a decade of really hard work."
Marin Alsop

Alsop remains the only conductor ever to have received the illustrious MacArthur Fellowship -- also known as the "genius grant" -- which is presented to U.S. residents in recognition of continued creative merit.

With education and youth empowerment close to the American conductor's heart, she initiated a slew of programs over the years.

Most notably, she started a fellowship for young female conductors in 2002, with three previous winners going on to become music directors themselves.

Read: Space archaeologist reveals lost cities

In a bid to give back to her local community, Alsop launched the "OrchKids" initiative in 2008, which aims to provide "music education, instruments, meals and mentorship" for young people in Baltimore.

For now, Alsop is focused intensely on the Last Night of the Proms when she will be conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in a program that highlights Wagner, Verdi and Britten, in addition to compositions from Bernstein.

"I'm bringing some music of my mentor and teacher Bernstein. There's some American music ... I think there are qualities about being American that I hope I can bring to the situation," she says.

"It's like presiding over the biggest party in the country and that's a nice role to have."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 15, 2014 -- Updated 2041 GMT (0441 HKT)
bbf
When Bobbi Brown set out to create her eponymous makeup line in 1991, she had one thing to her mind -- to make a lipstick that looked like lips.
July 15, 2014 -- Updated 0914 GMT (1714 HKT)
The Cornell educated executive, who is hotly tipped as the successor to magnate Steve Wynn, is about to unveil the latest Wynn Palace in Macau.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1154 GMT (1954 HKT)
From Coco Chanel to DVF, CNN takes a look at celebrated fashion designers and the iconic pieces which launched their careers.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 1115 GMT (1915 HKT)
:KNOXVILLE, TN - MAY 28: Dolly Parton performs during a concert to benefit Dolly's Imagination Library & Dr. Robert F. Thomas Foundation at The University of Tennessee's Thompson-boling Arena on May 28, 2014 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 05: Debbie Harry of Blondie performs onstage at the Amnesty International Concert presented by the CBGB Festival at Barclays Center on February 5, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for CBGB)
When titans of music Dolly Parton and Debbie Harry perform at one of the biggest music festivals on the planet, Glastonbury, who will be crowned queen?
June 17, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
2 Caption:Avignon, FRANCE: Serb artist Marina Abramovic performs in 'The Biography Remix' directed by Michael Laub from Netherlands, 10 July 2005 at the Benoix-XII house during the Theater Festival held in Avignon southern France. AFP PHOTO ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT (Photo credit should read ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)
CNN meets Serbian-born New-York based performance artist Marina Abramovic, as she embarks on the most controversial show of her career.
May 9, 2014 -- Updated 1325 GMT (2125 HKT)
This Mother's Day, we're celebrating the many women in the world who have provided care, love and guidance for children who are not biologically their own.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 1506 GMT (2306 HKT)
She turned her bohemian beach style and love of ballet shoes into a billion-dollar brand. This week on Leading Women, fashion designer Tory Burch reveals her ultimate style guru.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1623 GMT (0023 HKT)
Meet Mo Abudu, the talk show host portraying a very different Africa. As a glamorous presenter, she also heads up Ebony Life TV network, based in Nigeria.
May 23, 2014 -- Updated 0936 GMT (1736 HKT)
A lone blonde woman, wrapped in nothing but a sarong, leads four camels and a little dog across one of the most inhabitable environments on Earth.
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
Their job is capturing the most horrifying images on Earth -- keeping their eyes open, where others must look away. Meet Kate Brooks and Gerda Taro, the war photographers of today and yesterday.
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
Gloria Steinem speaks onstage during Equality Now presents 'Make Equality Reality' at Montage Hotel on November 4, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
As Gloria Steinem turns 80, Kathleen McCartney highlights the remarkable life of the feminist so far.
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
Former U.S. State Deparment Anne-Marie Slaughter says Brad Pitt is 'posterchild for engaged fatherhood'.
May 7, 2014 -- Updated 0750 GMT (1550 HKT)
Ahead of the release of her 14th studio album, take a look at the remarkable career of Mariah Carey, who went from curly-haired girl next door to elusive chanteuse.
March 8, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
CNN hosted a Tweetchat on gender equality with special guests including Nobel Peace prize laureate Tawakkol Karman. Here's what you missed.
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1059 GMT (1859 HKT)
From shaving her head for climate change to opting for a sustainable business model, Vivienne Westwood is simply unstoppable.
April 2, 2014 -- Updated 1502 GMT (2302 HKT)
In what would be a dream come true for her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw -- Sarah Jessica Parker has turned her love of fashion into a new shoe range with Manolo Blahnik.
ADVERTISEMENT