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Conductor Marin Alsop talks about the joys and challenges of leading an orchestra

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Here's some of the things that were said about my guest, Marin Alsop, early in her career, when she fought to be accepted as a conductor. These are quotes from fellow conductors who found it too much of a stretch to take a female conductor seriously. Here goes. "A sweet girl on the podium can make one's thoughts drift towards something else." "For me, seeing a woman at the podium - it's not my cup of tea." This quote gets right to the point. "I don't really like women conductors."

Alsop became the first woman to lead a major American orchestra in 2007, when she became the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, a position she held for 14 years. There were other firsts, including first woman to be the principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in England and the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra in Brazil, and the first and only conductor to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called Genius Award. Her mentor was Leonard Bernstein. And, like Bernstein, her passion for music is wide-ranging from the standard repertoire to symphonic jazz compositions, film scores and contemporary works.

She's currently the principal conductor of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, making her the first woman to ever lead a Viennese orchestra. She's the subject of the new documentary, "The Conductor." It's streaming on the PBS website and on several other streaming platforms.

Marin Alsop, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's been too long. Congratulations on this new documentary. It's terrific.

MARIN ALSOP: Oh, thanks so much.

GROSS: I want to start on a very sober note. And I should mention that we're recording this on March 22. And we're running it later than that. And you and I don't know what will have happened in Ukraine in the interim. But I want to start with a performance that you conducted of the Ukrainian anthem with the Orchestre de Paris in, I believe, early March. What would you say about this piece musically?

ALSOP: You know, it's - I think anthems are strange beasts in a way because they're not necessarily reflective of the culture from which they emanate, but they have a certain nobility. And I think this is rather - the sensibility about it is rather somber nobility. And I think, as far as anthems go, it's quite engaging. And, of course, emotionally, performing this in that moment was extremely moving. And the whole audience immediately stood up. And the orchestra remained standing. And one of the musicians said a few words before we played. And I think, you know, every concert I've done since then, we've tried to include some kind of reference to the crisis that's occurring in Ukraine.

GROSS: So here's my guest, Marin Alsop, conducting the Orchestre de Paris in the Ukrainian national anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRE DE PARIS PERFORMANCE OF "STATE ANTHEM OF UKRAINE")

GROSS: That's my guest, Marin Alsop, conducting the Orchestre de Paris in the Ukrainian national anthem. You are the conductor now of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. And I'm wondering if the members of that orchestra are very concerned about the possibility of a wider war in Europe.

ALSOP: Oh, it's a - of huge concern. I was just in Vienna these last two weeks. And, you know, the conflict is close. I mean, the border is just, you know, a hundred kilometers. It's not far at all. And many of my musicians in the orchestra were taking in refugees and trying to open their homes and - or trying to get supplies there. So I felt that - everybody's deeply engaged, deeply worried.

GROSS: So with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, you recorded a piece called "A Different Soldier's Tale." and I think this might fit the moment, too. Can you tell us about this piece? And then we'll hear an excerpt of it.

ALSOP: Yes, absolutely. Well, this is from a CD of all music by James Lee III. James is a Black composer living currently in the Baltimore area and D.C. area. And, you know, this is a piece that was inspired - of course, there's the very famous "Soldier's Tale" by Stravinsky, "L'Histoire Du Soldat." And this piece, James' piece, was inspired by war stories told to him by his grandfather. And I think as an African American soldier, fighting for freedom had a different significance to begin with - and then the whole experience of bonding with his fellow soldiers, but also feeling on the outside of what was going on.

GROSS: Well, let's hear an excerpt of the movement called "I Must Survive!" So this is from "A Different Soldier's Tale" by James Lee III with my guest, Marin Alsop, conducting.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIENNA RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF JAMES LEE III'S "I MUST SURVIVE!")

GROSS: That was my guest, Marin Alsop, conducting the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra in James Lee III's "A Different Soldier's Tale," and the movement we heard was called "I Must Survive!"

One of the things I associate you with is championing the work of contemporary composers, and what we just heard is an example of that. And I'm wondering if that is part of how you see your place in the world as this groundbreaking woman conductor. Are you - do you feel like you're especially attuned to other people who are being marginalized, who you want to bring to a bigger audience and take them out of the margins?

ALSOP: Oh, you know, I don't really think about it in those terms, but now that you're mentioning it, I suppose that is part of my sense of purpose. I love working with living composers because it brings me closer to the creative process. I'm not the creator. I'm always the re-creator. So I'm extremely respectful and always in awe of the composers. So working with living composers is a dream come true because I start to understand their inspiration, their motivation, the narrative behind their pieces. And of course, when I'm able to work with composers who haven't had the same opportunities, they are so hungry to be heard that it feels incredibly rewarding.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is conductor Marin Alsop. And there's a new documentary about her called "The Conductor," and you can see it streaming on the PBS website and also on other streaming sites. We'll be right back after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BRAHMS' "SYMPHONY NO. 4 IN E MINOR, OP. 98: IV. ALLEGRO ENERGICO E PASSIONATO - PIU ALLEGRO"

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with conductor Marin Alsop. There's a new documentary about her called "The Conductor," which is streaming now on the PBS website and on other streaming platforms as well. She is now the chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, the former conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Sao Paulo Orchestra. And she's conducted orchestras on a guest basis around the world.

You're still the only woman who has been the conductor of a major American orchestra. Women have made breakthroughs in so many different professions over the years. Why has it been so slow for conductors?

ALSOP: Well, I have to jump in here because there has been a recent appointment just within the last couple months of my dear friend Nathalie Stutzmann, French conductor, who will now head the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. So at least, there is now a woman in the top 25 orchestras though there will still be no American now in the top (laughter). But I - you know, I'm really thrilled that she was just recently appointed. But I think it almost highlights the fact that progress is very slow and sporadic. And there doesn't seem to be a real progression to the top in terms of this industry, which is something I hope we can see change in the next decade or so.

GROSS: In the documentary, there are scenes of you mentoring young conductors and, you know, teaching them how to do it. And in of those, when you're mentoring a young woman, you're talking about how gestures can be interpreted - gestures at the podium can be interpreted differently whether that same gesture is being done by a man or by a woman. And the example you give is if you're holding the baton with your pinky raised and you're a woman, that will be seen one way. But if you're a man holding the baton and your pinky is raised, that will be seen another. Would you elaborate on that?

ALSOP: Well, I mean, it's fascinating to think about because everything we do as conductors is about body language. And body language is interpreted differently when it comes from a woman or from a man - the same action, the same gesture. I mean, just think about it. When you shake someone's hand and you shake a woman's hand and the handshake is very firm, maybe a little too firm, you know, there's a certain impression one has. And then if you shake a man's hand and his handshake is firm, you know, it's a completely different experience.

And so what I was trying to get across to the student I was working with was that we need to have a constant awareness of what we're doing so that we can almost degenderize - if that's a word - what we're doing and make it only about the music because a gesture like that, you know, which is kind of frilly, would be seen as that - sort of weak, maybe a little bit submissive if a woman does it. If a man does it, it probably will be interpreted as being sensitive. And this is just the world we happen to live in.

I don't really - I don't ascribe too much judgment. I'm just trying to deal with the world - the real world - and how to express the music gesturally so that there is no gender association with it. It's only about the music. But as women, we have to think about that.

GROSS: There is also a moment where you're telling one of the women who you're mentoring, if you want a passage to sound really kind of strong, you can make a fist to show that. Are there certain gestures that women are less accustomed to making that you have to kind of encourage them to make - that it's okay to do that?

ALSOP: Oh, that's a great question. I can only speak from, you know, my personal growth and my development. I found that being demanding and getting a big sound from the orchestra, that was my biggest challenge when I was starting out. And what would happen for me was that I would go for it, and then I would sort of back away apologetically because, you know, I didn't want to hurt anyone. I mean, not that you're actually even touching anyone. But there was a tendency to say, oh, sorry. Are you OK, everybody all right? That's my nature. But I do see that in many other women that I work with, that - you know, to stand up and kind of take no prisoners and just be there and be demanding and unapologetic about it. This is something that's hard to do in life, period. But it's especially hard to do as a conductor.

GROSS: So why don't we hear something really rousing? And this is the finale of Brahms' second symphony. And you're conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Can you talk about, if you remember, what you were doing when you were conducting this in terms of, you know, your gestures, your physicality, trying to help evoke this rousing finale?

ALSOP: Oh, sure. I mean, first of all, working with this fantastic orchestra and recording all the Brahms symphonies was a dream come true. But this finale is - it's filled with joy and power and possibility. And I can remember just, you know, letting go. That's the idea. Let's just go for it and see where it takes us.

GROSS: OK. So let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BRAHMS' "SYMPHONY NO. 2 IN D MAJOR, OP 73")

GROSS: That was my guest, Marin Alsop, conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the finale of Brahms' second symphony.

You know, one of the things you do so well is talk to the audience and explain what's going on in a music piece and what they might listen for. And I used to hear you at the Cabrillo music festival in Santa Cruz, where you were the conductor for, like, 25 years. It was like a two-week long summer festival. And you would always just, like, play excerpts of the piece before actually playing the whole piece and say, here's what's happening here. And I loved the informality of that. And the concerts were in a gym, so the setting wasn't formal.

ALSOP: Yeah.

GROSS: Everybody was just showing up in the clothes they'd ordinarily wear. There was utter informality. And I found that, you know, just making the music, like, so accessible and so much more interesting to hear because you were telling me things to listen for - as somebody who likes that approach, as you do, did you ever find that people confused informality with a lack of authority?

ALSOP: Well, yeah. I think that's often a danger that we see that composers who write music that's, quote-unquote, "accessible" are often considered, you know, less profound (laughter). And I think speaking to the audience, it's always been a hallmark. It's from my days of playing in nightclubs with my swing band, in jazz clubs. And, you know, I remember the first first night we performed, String Fever, at Mikell's pub up on 97th and Columbus. And I had a whole prepared little talk I was going to give, you know? Now, this tune is from, you know, 1930s. I had this whole thing. And I don't know - everybody was drinking pretty strong that night. And they were like, come on, just play your music. And I realized, OK, this can't be this formal. I have to go with the flow. And that started to inform my speaking at concerts, that it has to be about the moment you're in, about sharing with the audience some things.

And when you're listening to new music, it's very important - I mean, I try to imagine someone just coming in from work off the street and trying to digest a brand-new piece of music. It's a whole language you've never heard. It's a vocabulary, maybe an alphabet you're not familiar with. And if you know a couple of phrases and a couple of - you know, just a couple of thoughts, a couple of ideas, you have such - you have a much richer experience of the piece. And so that really is my goal always, bring the composer closer to the listener rather than having always these distances. I don't think distance equals greatness. I think greatness equals greatness.

GROSS: Bravo.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Marin Alsop. And there's a new documentary about her called "The Conductor" that you can see streaming on the PBS website and on several streaming platforms. We'll be right back after a break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN, PHILIPPE QUINT, TIMOTHY WALDEN, BOURNEMOUTH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND MARIN ALSOP'S "SERENADE: III ERYXIMACHUS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to my interview with conductor Marin Alsop. She was the first woman to conduct a major American orchestra in the U.S. And that was the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which she recently left after 25 years. She's now the conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. And she has been the conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and has conducted orchestras worldwide. She has a very groundbreaking place in classical music.

So you wanted to be a conductor ever since you were, what, 7 or 9, was it (laughter)?

ALSOP: Yeah. No, it was 9.

GROSS: 9, OK.

ALSOP: It was 9. I don't know if that makes much difference. But I was 9. Yeah.

GROSS: Oh, exactly. And one of the reasons why was because you saw, you know, a Leonard Bernstein Young People's Orchestra (ph), in which he would talk to the audience, which was made up of children and their parents, and describe to them what was happening in the music before he actually played it. But you were told - you know, you kept getting rejected from conducting programs because you were told ever since you were a child that women aren't conductors. So let's start there. When you were a child, did anyone ever explain why women aren't conductors?

ALSOP: I received some conflicting information on this. So after I - my dad took me to see Bernstein conduct. And I was so overwhelmed and enamored and taken aback by him - not just the conducting. I think the conducting was sort of the least of it. It was the way he spoke to us in the audience, his enthusiasm for the music, the fact that he was jumping around and not getting yelled at. I really liked that part, too.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ALSOP: You know, for me, classical music was already a little bit too rule-oriented. But I said to my dad, oh, I want to be the conductor. Look at what a great time this guy is having. And my dad said, absolutely, wonderful. And then I went and told my violin teacher, who I was studying with at Juilliard pre-college. And she explained to me that, look, conductors are older. And I - you know, I thought to myself, OK, well, I know that that'll change. And she said, and girls don't do that. Or maybe she said, girls can't do that. Yeah. It was even more deadly, I think (laughter). Girls can't do that. And I'd never heard a phrase like that. You know, it never occurred to me that there was something that girls couldn't do.

And I went home that night. And I told my parents. And, oh, my mother was so mad. I mean, she was hopping mad. She - my mother said, you can do anything you want to do. You can be anything you want to be. That's ridiculous. We should sue them. You know, (laughter) my mother was that crazy. And my father - I think he must have gone out that afternoon. And he came back 'cause when I came down for breakfast the next morning, there was a long wooden box at my place. And I opened it up, and he had filled it with batons. And so from my parents, I got the message, you can do - you can be whatever you want.

GROSS: And your parents were musicians.

ALSOP: Yeah. My parents were both professional classical musicians. Yeah.

GROSS: And I don't know if they were yet in this position. But your father became the concertmaster at the New York City Ballet Orchestra. And your mother was a cellist in the orchestra. And she also was a cellist for Radio City Music Hall (laughter). What interesting careers that they each had. But anyways, they were really accomplished musicians. So they really understood the world of classical music and what an offense this was to you. You applied to be in the conducting program at Juilliard several times, and you had studied at Juilliard ever since you were 7. But you kept getting rejected from the conducting program. And once, you were told that you'd never be a conductor and that your muscles had atrophied.

ALSOP: Yeah, I think I was 21 or 22.

GROSS: What do you think they meant - the - whoever said this?

ALSOP: Well, you know, I think I have to give some background to this because, you know, I really had no experience as a conductor. So I think they were reacting partly to my naivete, my lack of skills yet - all these things. I don't think this was strictly gender-based. And also, there was the feeling that if you couldn't reduce a score at the piano that you could never be a conductor. And that's what this particular professor was reacting to.

I did the audition. And I got very far. And then I had to play from a Mahler score at the piano. And they were all transposing horns. And, you know, piano wasn't my instrument. I play the violin. And so it was pretty bad. And that's when he said, you'll never be a conductor because all of your muscles have atrophied. And I thought, you know, I play the violin, which enables me to speak to the majority of the orchestra because I understand what it feels like. I know what it is to be a string player. I know what the sound is.

And, you know, of course, the - it's really changed over the years. And although it was felt you had to be a pianist to be a conductor, it's now really changed. And string players, I think, are really coming into their own as conductors. So I do want to say that I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I had no experience. But I was a little bit - the first time I applied to Juilliard, I had just graduated with my master's in violin performance. And I got a form letter saying that my academic credentials didn't meet their standards (laughter). So I stormed into the president's office on that one.

And, you know, I kept trying. I tried two more times. And I have to say, very recently, just last year, when I was awarded an honorary doctorate from Juilliard, I read my final rejection letter. And the students really appreciated it.

GROSS: Oh, can you paraphrase some of that for us?

ALSOP: Oh, it really says that, you know, we're sorry to inform you that our committee was unable to consider your application, and we're refunding your $35. And, you know, we wish you good luck (laughter) - something like that. But, you know, you have to - it's easy, of course, now to have some distance on it. But in the moment, I was really devastated because it felt that everywhere I turned, every door was just closed. And that's what really prompted me to say, well, if every door is closed, I just have to build my own house. So I just got all of my friends together, all my friends from String Fever, my swing band and friends from Juilliard and friends that I had met gigging around New York. And I said, would you guys come and start an orchestra with me? And that's how we started the wonderful Concordia Chamber Orchestra.

GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is conductor Marin Alsop. There's a new documentary about her called "The Conductor" that's streaming on the PBS platform and also on several other streaming platforms. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIN ALSOP AND BALTIMORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BELA BARTOK'S "CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA, BB 123: III. ELEGIA: ANDANTE NON TROPPO")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with conductor Marin Alsop. She's currently the conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. She became the first woman to be the music director of a major American orchestra when she became the music director and conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, where she stayed for 14 years. It was very difficult for you when you became the conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the conductor and music director. I think you thought you'd gotten the job, but then there was - there were protests. In the documentary about you, it's described as a fabricated letter of complaint by a handful of musicians in the orchestra. What was the story behind that letter?

ALSOP: Well, you know, I don't really know the story behind the letter. And I actually never read the letter. And the first time I was seeing it was in the documentary, believe it or not, because I was so traumatized by the experience. I had guest conducted the Baltimore Symphony a couple times, and it was fantastic. What a wonderful orchestra, I thought, and what great potential. I love the city, and I love the musicians. And so to be offered the position by the board of directors and then to be met with this out-of-nowhere protest that couldn't be really ascribed to anyone in particular because everyone was sending around anonymous comments and concerns and this and that, you know - and it wasn't until I saw the documentary, the first cut of the documentary, that I saw the - some of the phrases in this letter that, you know, hiring this woman will set the Baltimore Symphony back 36 years - I'm not sure where they got that number - these kinds of things, you know, that it would destroy the future of the orchestra, et cetera.

Anyway, it's a complicated situation that I walked into because there was such a history of adversity between the management and the board and the musicians. And I decided that I wouldn't take the job until I spoke to the musicians because I - you know, I wasn't going to - I don't - I didn't think they knew me. I mean, it was true they knew me from a couple guest weeks, but they didn't really know who I was. And I wanted to at least be able to explain to them what I thought I could bring to them. So I went to Baltimore before I would sign a contract and spoke privately to the musicians.

GROSS: What did you say to them?

ALSOP: You know, it's - it was a very passionate talk. And I did say to them that I didn't know if I would ever get over this - what had happened. And that was heartfelt. And I don't think I ever have gotten over it, to be honest. But I said, listen, I'm not going to sign a contract if you don't want me here. I - why don't you talk it over and let me know what you think? And before I left the stage, the head of the committee - who's still in the orchestra - said, you have our support. So I felt - you know, I didn't know how authentic that was, but I felt that at least I was being transparent and honest with them and we could get down to work. And I decided that the best thing I could bring would be success. And so that's what I focused on for them.

GROSS: They hadn't recorded in 10 years when you got there, but after you got there, there were Baltimore Symphony Orchestra recordings. You also created several outreach programs. One of them was called OrchKids, as in Orchestra of Kids, and this was in West Baltimore where kids were given instruments, taught how to play them and played in their orchestras. Why was it important to you to have orchestra outreach programs to various parts of the community that wouldn't typically show up at an orchestra concert?

ALSOP: Well, when I moved to Baltimore and started really seeing the place of the orchestra in the community, I realized that in Baltimore, even more so than in other cities, the makeup of the orchestra was not a reflection of the community, which, you know, was over 60% African American when I started there in 2007. And how would we try to change that landscape for the future? And of course thinking about having candidates in the orchestra from underrepresented communities is a daunting prospect, you know, because in order to become an expert at an instrument, you have to start very, very young. And you have to have the financial capacity to take private lessons, you know, buy an instrument, all these things.

And so I thought, well, why don't we at least start and see if we can't give some opportunities to kids who wouldn't normally have a chance to play an instrument? And so we started really not knowing what would happen with 30 first-graders in West Baltimore. And, I mean, they were so receptive. And they were so supremely talented that it made me realize that every single child is born a genius. You know, it's just a matter of whether society sucks that out of them or supports it by creating opportunity. And from those 30 kids, the program grew, and it serves over 2,000 kids now in West and East Baltimore.

GROSS: Oh, so it's still in existence?

ALSOP: Oh, yeah, for sure. And many of the kids from that very first class, believe it or not, graduated high school and have gone on to study music education, music management, music performance. Believe it or not, the first generation of OrchKids has chosen music as a profession and a career.

GROSS: As you were leaving the orchestra, you said on NPR that if you had it to do over again, you wouldn't have tried so hard to move the orchestra out of the ivory tower. And sometimes, you have to say, OK, this is not where people want to go. Why did you have second thoughts about having tried to do certain aspects of community outreach with the orchestra?

ALSOP: I don't know. I mean, I think I was really trying to be circumspect about who I am. This is more about who I am, not about them. And sometimes, I think I so want to be helpful, and I so want to move people forward in their thinking. But sometimes, it's better - maybe it's striking a balance to find that middle ground where you can be helpful in pushing people forward but not upset their equilibrium too much. I think I tend toward the upsetting the equilibrium a little bit too much.

GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is conductor Marin Alsop, and there's a new documentary about her called "The Conductor." And you can see it streaming on the PBS website and also on other streaming sites. We'll be right back after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAO PAOLO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BERNSTEIN'S "ANNIVERSARIES, FANCY FREE SUITE, OVERTURE TO CANDIDE AND OVERTURE TO WONDERFUL TOWN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with conductor Marin Alsop. There's a new documentary about her called "The Conductor," which is streaming now on the PBS website and on other streaming platforms as well. She is now the chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, the former conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Sao Paulo Orchestra. And she's conducted orchestras on a guest basis around the world.

Leonard Bernstein was a pretty flashy conductor, and it was always fun to, like, watch him 'cause it's like he was, you know, almost, like, dancing on stage. Did he encourage you to be that way?

ALSOP: Oh, gosh, no. He would say - I mean, he was funny though. He would say, look, don't imitate me, but do it like this, (laughter) you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

ALSOP: So you would be like, OK, wait a minute. What are you saying to me? But, I mean, I - you know, we can all kind of do our Lenny imitations, but that's all they are. They're imitations. I mean, he - the most important thing he taught me is be yourself. Be authentic. Be genuine. And, you know, when he was dancing around and jumping and doing the shoulder shrugs, this was totally him. It wasn't - he wasn't being imitative. He wasn't being derivative. He wasn't putting on a show. He was just digging what he was doing, and that was being the messenger of the composer. And that's what he taught us always, you know, that that's our first responsibility, not to go up on the podium and be watched, but really to get the message of the composer across.

GROSS: Well, you know, in terms of, like, authenticity and who you are, there's who you are musically, and then there's also who you are...

ALSOP: (Laughter) Easy for you to say.

GROSS: Yeah - who you are outside of music. And we are introduced to your wife in the documentary about you. Were you, like, in the closet when you were starting to conduct because - I mean, it was difficult enough that you were a woman. But to be a lesbian and a conductor, that might have been, like, really a bridge too far for, like, so many orchestras.

ALSOP: Well, I think I had so many - what would I call them? - strikes against me. I mean, of course, I was young. I was a woman. And I was American. That was already, like, you know, three strikes and you're out. And then, you know, being gay and, you know, feeling that I didn't really fit in anywhere, you know, I think I had so many things to carry that I just put a backpack on and said, OK, just fill it up, and let's go.

GROSS: I want to talk a little bit more about working with Bernstein. You know, there's a couple of clips with you working with him in the Tanglewood days, when you had your fellowship at Tanglewood, when you were studying conducting. And he seems so affectionate toward you. And you can see that not only in the look on his face, but he's kind of putting his hand on your shoulder and, I think, putting his arm - you know, his arm around you at one point. And you can tell that, like, he likes you and feels this bond with you. He's encouraging you. And I was watching that with two sets of eyes - one thinking, oh, he's really encouraging her, and the other thinking, if this was today, he could be accused of being, you know, inappropriate and touching you without, you know, asking your permission first. So are you very self-conscious now about how you touch people in the orchestras you conduct? And I'm wondering, too, if Europe has the same kind of sensitivities that America has now.

ALSOP: You know, I think that it's always a good idea to try to be respectful and remember that not everyone is open to being touched, to being - you know, to having that physical contact. And well, of course, I worry that the pendulum will swing too far the other way, but that's a natural - I think that's a natural cycle that happens. I - you know, I've been known to kind of tie up my students with (laughter) - you know, I - OK that doesn't sound right. But, you know...

GROSS: (Laughter).

ALSOP: When their left arm is doing something weird, sometimes, I'll tie it to their - and I've really thought twice about doing that, you know, in the last few years. And before I tie up one of my students, I ask them, is it OK? - always, you know? But I think for conducting, you know, it's so much about being able to have independence of hands and your posture and what - if they're nodding or if they're bending or if their knees are bent.

You know, you have to bring some awareness to these different habits. And sometimes, the only way to do that really is by touching the person, you know, on the knees. Look, come on. Your knees keep bending here. Do you feel it? Do you see that? And - but, of course, we have video also. And I say, come on, watch the video. And I do a lot more come-on-watch-the-video than I do touching anymore. But I was never as affectionate as Leonard Bernstein. I don't know another human being who is that affectionate.

GROSS: I'm interested in hearing more about why you'd want to tie somebody's hand up.

ALSOP: (Laughter).

GROSS: Like, what were they doing wrong that you wanted to correct?

ALSOP: What happens is that since we're symmetrical beings, when one does something with one's right hand, there's a natural tendency to do it - the exact same gesture in opposition. So it becomes a mirror image. It's like when you're walking and you move your arms. So it's very difficult to gain independence of the left hand. But as a conductor, you really need that because you need to have - you're losing 50% of your potential vocabulary otherwise because you're saying the same thing with both hands, which is unnecessary.

So sometimes, I ask them, you know, to put their left hand behind their back, put it in their pocket. Sometimes, some people really - that still doesn't stop it, you know? And so then we - you know, we loosely tie them up. You know, we don't - really, it's - they can always escape easily and - or, you know,

I've had moments where I've put a blindfold over a conductor's eyes because they're so distracted by what they're seeing that they're unable to focus. And sometimes, that can bring a focus to them. You know, and then I have some weights that they can try to use, you know, like, around their wrist. You hook the 1-pound weight on to feel the weight of the sound. So we have a lot of - we do a lot of fun things, I have to say.

GROSS: Do other conductors who teach do that kind of stuff?

ALSOP: I have no idea.

GROSS: This is stuff you came up with yourself?

ALSOP: (Laughter) Yeah. I mean, these are all techniques that I used on myself as I was trying to develop. You know, I'd watch myself on the video, and I'd say, oh, why can't I feel that sound, you know? I can't feel the weight of the sound, you know? And then I would grab, you know, a bag of rice and try to conduct holding that bag of rice so that I could feel the weight - those kinds of things. And conducting is so much about imagining the feeling of something and conveying that. So it's really, really important to be constantly pushing ourselves toward that.

GROSS: Oh, that's really interesting. Marin Alsop, it has just been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much, and thank you for your music.

ALSOP: Oh, my pleasure. Great to speak with you again, too.

GROSS: Marin Alsop is currently the principal conductor of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. The new documentary about her is called "The Conductor." It's streaming on the PBS website and on several other streaming platforms.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Ocean Vuong, author of the acclaimed novel "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous." He was born in Vietnam in 1988 and raised in the U.S. by his mother and grandmother, who was traumatized by the war. They didn't speak English. His mother couldn't read. He was marginalized by being an immigrant, poor and gay. He has a new poetry collection. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF STIFELMAN ET AL.'S PERFORMANCE OF JOHNSON'S "VICTORY STRIDE (1944)")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering today from Diana Martinez. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I am Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF STIFELMAN ET AL.'S PERFORMANCE OF JOHNSON'S "VICTORY STRIDE (1944)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.