Marin Alsop will never forget the first time she saw Leonard Bernstein conduct in the flesh.
"I used to see him on TV all the time, on the young people's concerts," the 33-year-old New Yorker recalls. "Then when I was around 11 my parents took me to see a big people's concert. Even then people said I was too emotional, that I moved too much when I played the violin. Then I saw him and I thought, `This guy is too everything.' He was so dynamic and moved a lot, and made faces and groaned and all those things. And I said, `This is it. This is what I'm going to do.' "Not everyone encouraged that ambition. "My violin teacher said, `You can't do that. Girls don't become conductors.' I was very upset and told my father, and the next day, when I sat down to breakfast, there waiting for me was a box of batons."
Apparently her father's faith was justified. Earlier this year Alsop was appointed music director of the Eugene Symphony Orchestra, in Oregon, and the Long Island Philharmonic, where she succeeds Christopher Keene. Were that not enough, last month she was awarded the Koussevitzky Conducting Award at Tanglewood, becoming the first woman to be so honored. (Past recipients include Claudio Abbado, Seiji Ozawa and Michael Tilson Thomas.) Fittingly her association with Tanglewood began as a Leonard Bernstein Conducting Fellow in 1988.
"Working with him there was like a dream come true," Alsop says. At one point they even conducted on the same concert, Alsop leading the Roy Harris Third Symphony, a longstanding Koussevitzky-Bernstein specialty.
"I thought I would have a heart attack. But while I was standing backstage waiting to go out, Bernstein was there wearing Koussevitzky's cape - he's so dramatic - and as we both faced the entrance he took my arm and very quietly started humming some of the Harris. It was like he was part of me, giving me a transfusion or something - an incredible experience."
As it happens, Bernstein is not Alsop's only full-circle link with Tanglewood. Among the senior faculty who picked her for the Koussevitzky Prize was former Utah Symphony music director Maurice Abravanel, who earlier had encouraged her father Lamar's musical ambitions.
"His family's originally from Salt Lake," Alsop explains, "and his first professional job was playing in the Utah Symphony. He was 18 and doubled on violin and bass clarinet, for which I think he got an extra $5 per week." It was Abravanel, she says, who supported the elder Alsop's move east, where for the past 25 years he has been concertmaster of the New York City Ballet.
"My mom is a cellist in the same orchestra," she adds, "and I played in it, too, for 10 years. We had a monopoly."
What they'll have this week is a family reunion, as Alsop's parents come to witness her guest conducting debut with the Utah Symphony Chamber Orchestra, in concerts Friday, Dec. 8, in Ogden, at Weber State College, and Saturday, Dec. 9, in Symphony Hall. Featured on the 18th-century program will be music of Haydn (the Symphony No. 49), Corelli (the "Christmas" Concerto), Handel (extracts from the "Water Music") and the Concerto in E major for Double Bass and Orchestra of Johann Baptist Vanhal. Soloing in the last will be David Yavornitzky, and starting time for each concert is 8 p.m.
Despite her Juilliard credentials, Alsop never studied conducting there. "I don't think they admitted women to the conducting program until the '70s," she comments. "In a lot of ways they were really very traditional in their thinking and didn't take many chances. Today it's much better." So she picked up the phone and called Carl Bamberger at the Mannes School of Music and he agreed to teach her privately.
"That was even before I anticipated being able to make it a full-time thing," she remembers. Later, after pocketing her master's degree in violin, she did apply to the Juilliard program, without success. But by then she was already doing a fair amount of free-lancing.
In 1980 she founded String Fever, a largely female swing band that is still active on the New York jazz scene. Also still active is Concordia: A Chamber Symphony, a 45-piece orchestra she put together with $10,000 of her own money in 1984.
"For four years I ran it out of my apartment, which became like Grand Central Station," Alsop says of her bachelor digs in Manhattan, as it happens just down the hall from her parents.
Apparently word got around. One day at a pops concert in New Jersey where she was serving as concertmaster the conductor failed to show. "Marin can do it," one of her friends said. After the concert, she says, another musician came up and said, "You were fantastic! I never noticed you were a girl."
Ironically, that's almost how she got the Long Island job. "I don't know that they were even considering me originally," Alsop says. "I think what happened was that some of the musicians who had worked with me in New York requested that they take a look at me."
Long Island thus becomes one of four orchestras she is currently working with. This season she is committed for nine weeks in Richmond, Va., where she serves as associate conductor. Eugene accounts for another 15 weeks, at scattered intervals, and Long Island another six, escalating to 16 in '90-91. Leaving Concordia, which she says plays about four concerts a year, and assorted guest engagements with the likes of Louisville, San Francisco, Washington's National Symphony and, of course, Utah.
"It feels like the ride of a lifetime," Alsop says, adding that at present she has no idea where the road may lead. But then, one recalls, that was true when she first saw Bernstein conduct and was told there was no chance for her to follow in his footsteps.
"I suppose we all have these preconceptions," she says. "The other day I got on a plane and there were two women in the cockpit. It felt strange. On the other hand we now have two guys in String Fever." Was she consciously trying to break a barrier there? "No," she replies. "We hired them because they were the best players."