THE CONDUCTOR – SLJFF Review
Joyful is a good word for Bernadette Wegenstein’s delightful, inspiring biographical documentary THE CONDUCTOR, about Marin Alsop, the first woman conductor of a major American orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. It is still an exceedingly rare thing, even in the 21st century, for a woman to lead a major American orchestra, rarer even than a woman leading nations.
THE CONDUCTOR is part of the 2022 St. Louis Jewish Film Festival, which is virtual again this year, meaning all films can be streamed through the festival website through March 13. For tickets and more information, visit their website https://jccstl.com/arts-ideas/st-louis-jewish-film-festival.
The documentary, one of the featured films at the 2022 St. Louis Jewish Film Festival, spotlights the career and life of Marin Alsop. Alsop has led a life of firsts and impressive accomplishments, including winning a MacArthur genius grant. This enjoyable, informative documentary also offers insights on what conductors do and why they are necessary, and features including some archival footage of Leonard Bernstein speaking on the subject.
It was Leonard Bernstein who inspired Alsop to want to become a conductor, and later became her mentor. We get plenty of Bernstein in archival footage encouraging young Alsop.
Alsop herself is a funny, smart, charismatic woman who projects immense charm and down-to-earth wit, and an amazing commitment to music. Even if you are not particularly a classical music fan, the documentary will still delight. However, for those who are serious music fans, they are endless delights in this excellent documentary, full of glorious music along side insights on conductors, and one heck of a underdog story. THE CONDUCTOR’s beautiful music will lift hearts, as Alsop’s remarkable story inspires, a tale of a woman musician who dreamed of being a conductor and just wouldn’t take no for an answer.
As the only child of struggling Jewish professional classical musicians in New York City, it was often a lonely childhood for Marin, as her freelancing parents worked as many as four jobs a day. It was a foregone conclusion Marin would be a musician, but at about age nine, she had an life-altering experience, when she attended a children’s concert led by Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein spoke directly to the young audience about the music and, immediately, he became her hero. She knew instantly what she wanted to do in life: become a conductor.
However, when she excitedly shared her new ambition with her teacher at Julliard, she was told flatly women couldn’t be conductors. It seemed everyone opposed the idea – except her musician father. And later, her mentor, Leonard Bernstein.
Marin Alsop’s love of music, and people, is infectious and her personal charm is part of the appeal of this wonderful documentary. The music is a delight, woven throughout this wild but true story, much of which is told by Marin Alsop herself. Alsop is a spellbinding speaker, quick-witted and accessible, and director Wegenstein combines those wonderful scenes with Alsop with archival stills and footage, additional interviews, and a few scenes dramatically recreating Alsop’s childhood experiences.
Alsop is also determined and stubborn. At one point, Alsop tells us that the best way to get her to do something is to tell her she can’t.
Although music seemed always in her future, Alsop’s journey was no straight shot. I tried to turn every struggle into an opportunity, Alsop says at one point. Chafing under the strict rules and controlling teachers at Julliard, which she felt smothered individuality, Alsop suddenly veered from the Julliard track. She switched to attend Yale, considering pursuing a career outside music.
Breaking away from classical, she decided she wanted to play rock and roll violin (something unheard of at the time, she notes) but instead paired with a jazz composer and started a Swing-style jazz orchestra – even though she didn’t know anything about the genre. She assembled an all-woman band, named Swing Fever. They were all from Julliard, so they were used to playing exactly what was on the page. But to succeed, they had to learn how to swing the music. They did, and the group became a hit.
Trying to return to Julliard to study conducting, Alsop found her way blocked. So with the help of a Japanese businessman investor, she formed her own orchestra, began to conduct and gain experience. In 1989, she won a prize to be a student conductor at Tanglewood, which brought her back to her hero, Leonard Bernstein, who became her mentor.
The documentary’s section on her work with Bernstein is particularly appealing, capturing the warm and closeness between the two. The film’s inspiring upward arc of firsts really takes off as we follow Alsop’s upward trajectory. Among her accomplishments was being the Creative Conductor Chair for the St. Louis Symphony from 1994 to 1996.
In 2007, Alsop found herself in the running to lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. At the time, no woman had ever led a major American symphony orchestra like the BSO. The documentary details her challenging journey, facing bracing sexism, even from the orchestra members who had never met her. So she introduced herself, and won them over.
THE CONDUCTOR not only details Alsop’s professional triumphs but aspects of her personal life, and her commitment to opening doors for others, so they don’t have to face the obstacles she did. There is footage of Alsop teaching and her mentorship projects, including a music programs for disadvantaged city kids. Not content to be the first woman to lead a major orchestra, Alsop is determined not to be the last.
THE CONDUCTOR is exhilarating in its uplifting, underdog story, a wonderful inspiring story made even more heartwarming by the presence of the charming Marin Alsop and backed by wonderful music. It is nearly impossible to leave this film without a smile on your face. THE CONDUCTOR plays the virtual St. Louis Jewish Film Festival, along with a free virtual discussion between the director and Erik Finley, Vice President and General Manager of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
THE CONDUCTOR is available to stream as part of the 2022 St. Louis Jewish Film Festival through Mar. 13. For tickets and more information, visit their website https://jccstl.com/arts-ideas/st-louis-jewish-film-festival.