Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 19, 2021 7:22 pm 
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BERNADETTE WEGENSTEIN : THE CONDUCTOR (2021) - San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 2021 (July 22 - Aug. 1)



Woman innovator of classical music

As the first and so far still the only woman conductor of a major American orchestra, Marin Alsop is a uniquely important person in the world of classical music. It is right that she should have a film portrait and Bernadette Wegenstein has provided an excellent one. This film is inspiring. It's full of joy as well as struggle. It should be seen by many. It can serve as an example and, yes, an inspiration to more women to break through the glass ceiling Alsop penetrated about fifteen years ago when she was named music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She also has held that position with the Orchestra of São Paolo, Brazil and recently has assumed it with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Struggle and spirit dominate the film. Largely narrated by Alsop herself, it's full of humor and enthusiasm, the joy of making music; the inspiration of passing on the gift of classical music to disadvantaged youth and inspiring young people, especially young women, to become conductors. But there is no getting around the fact that she had a hard time getting where she is, and not an easy early life altogether. She grew up in a tiny basement apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan, the only child of classical musicians (a violinist and a cellist) who made little money and had to be working all the time. Her mother was severe. Her parents expected her to become a musician, preferably a pianist so they could be a piano trio. She hated the piano but became a violinist and studied at Juilliard and at Yale. She got degrees in violin at Juilliard in 1977 and 1978.

But from very early on she wanted above all to be a conductor. At the age of nine she says her father took her to a performance where Leonard Bernstein led an orchestra in a young people's concert with his typical vivacity and gyrations and knew that was what she wanted to do, and nothing else. But at Juilliard, she recounts an interview with a "tall, German, scary" conducting teacher who told her definitively No, a woman cannot conduct a symphony orchestra. She applied repeatedly and was rejected every time.

It's interesting to learn how Alsop worked around this, notably by starting her own groups, an all-female "swing" string group String Fever in 1981. And then, after that basic practice, with the financial support of Tomio Taki, a wealthy Japanese businessman at whose wedding she had played, she started the 50-piece Concordia Orchestra specializing in 20th-century American music. After that, frankly, it gets complicated. Major conductors have so many overlapping gigs over different time spans and in different countries it's hard to keep track of them. Importantly, Alsop has been a helper and teacher. Significent programs she has fostered are the The Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship and the OrchKids program for underprivileged Baltimore children.

Her relationship with her first inspiration, Leonard Bernstein, turned out to be a magical one. After several tries, she gained admission to a Tanglewood summer conducting workshop. When she arrived there, Bernstein announced, "Where is this Marin Alsop I've been hearing about?" From then on he took her under his wing and went from being a teacher to a mentor and a friend and major supporter. This was a dream relationship for her. She has a big picture of Lenny in her office (she's not the only one).

But she tells a surprising story about herself and Bernstein. After many concerts where he rushed up to embrace and congratulate her dramatically after conducting, one time he stayed in the back and did not come forward. She went to him and asked if something was wrong. He said "I've been thinking. If I close my eyes when you're conducting, I can't tell if it's a man or a woman." She answered if he wanted to listen to her with his eyes closed, that was fine by her. The prejudices of the Old Boy Network of classical music lingered in Bernstein too.

It seems in the cases of both the BSO and São Paolo she may to some extent have lifted orchestras out of doldrums, and in fact a Brazilian orchestra person suggests São Paolo is similar to Baltimore, a city with problems, poverty, crime. She reports the BSO not having made many recordings for a while; São Paolo playing in a train station converted to a concert hall and the orchestra "hungry" for music. The filmmaker follows Alsop to Brazil and interviews people. The musicians like her, find her "clear" and authentic. With the Vienna orchestra, it was the other way around but also, Alsop says, good for her: coming to "the birthplace of classical music" as well as a place not traditionally friendly to women musicians, an environment that's severe and judgmental and imposes the highest standards. To do this, and still be relaxed and herself, she says has been a most valuable challenge. (She also makes an effort to speak both Portuguese and German: not here, but elsewhere, she has said she likes studying languages, though doesn't think herself particularly gifted that way.)

When Alsop came to lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, it was a nightmare. Orchestra members raised an uproar, insisting they had not been sufficiently consulted. The reception was anything but friendly. It seemed like her appointment might not go through. How she straightened this out may be more complicated than can be fully explained in this film. A central event, though, was a personal talk she wangled with the musicians, though a friend who was coming as soloist who loaned her ten minutes of her time, with no board members present. Here, she spoke about outreach, promotion, and recording, and the musicians came around.

Conducting classes show Alsop to be a sure, incisive, and entertaining teacher. She is Director of Graduate Conducting at the Peabody Institute, Baltimore's music school, but her own Taki-Alsop Conducting Fellowship is what seems here to be most important in fostering female and minority conductors.

Her spouse is Kristin Jurkscheit, a former horn player she met at her gig previous to Baltimore as conductor of the Denver Symphony Orchestra (1993-2005). Jurkscheit now directs Taki-Alsop. We hear from her a bit; we briefly see the handsome house they share in Baltimore. We see their teenage son pursuing his passion, rock climbing, making a move that might make Alex Honnold gasp. One thing Alsop says stands out: that when someone comes to you and says something is their passion and they do not want to do anything else, you do not turn them away. "The one thing I never want to do to a young person is to tell them 'You're not' something, 'You can't do' something." She will not repeat the mistakes done to her. she makes sure her son knows he is loved and feels free to pursue his own dreams.

The film can't focus as much on the music because of all the social and biographical concerns. But it does show Alsop engaging with Mahler, Stravinsky, Mozart, and other musical loves, as well as engaged in a mind-blowing performance of a Bernstein Mass and being the first women in 118 years to preside Last Night of the Proms in London’s Royal Albert Hall — following the conductor's leading the BSO in annual tours of the UK. It feels like I'm being promotional, and it feels as if the film is too. But sometimes it has to be that way. About Marin Alsop there is much to admire and little to dislike. She has been a special positive influence on classical music and remains so.

The Conductor 90 mins., debuted at Tribeca June 2021. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (July 22-Aug. 1, 2021) where it was presented as the centerpiece documentary. (Wed., July 28, 2021 6:00 p.m.)


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