Every year, a couple dozen of our country’s best and brightest are recognized as MacArthur Fellows; colloquially, it’s known as the “Genius Grant,” a no-strings-attached gift of $625,000 (raised in 2013 from its previous $500,000) paid out over five years to the U.S. citizens doing the most to contribute to and create a better world for us all. The honor is often granted to scientists, creatives, activists, diplomats, you name it. What’s even more amazing is that there is no application process; no one can submit to be considered for the grant. It’s chosen by committee through anonymous nominations, and one day, you (well, maybe not you and definitely not me) might just wake up to a phone call worth over half a million dollars.
Notable recipients include author and critic Ibram X. Kendi, filmmaker Nanfu Wang and the polymath himself, Lin-Manuel Miranda; more often than not, however, the recipients of the grant are hard-working professionals you may only know if you’re familiar with their niche craft or area of study (the list of recipients on Wikipedia includes medieval historians, audio preservationists and geologists, to name a few). Such is the case with 2005 honoree and symphony conductor Marin Alsop, the subject of Bernadette Wegenstein’s enlightening and entertaining new documentary, The Conductor. In a field still overwhelmingly populated by men (and white men, at that), Alsip has spent decades carving out a path for herself and other female conductors with dreams of leading the most renowned and influential symphonies in the world.
The only child of professional musicians, Alsip grew up in New York City with one set path: a career in music. Her education began and ended at the esteemed Juilliard School, where she initially intended to become a violinist. But one encounter with the great Leonard Bernstein, watching him conduct a symphony she attended as a child, and all bets, as they say, were off. Conducting was all there would ever be for her, no matter how many people told her there’s no room for a woman at the podium.
Told primarily through Alsip’s own words in interviews taped throughout the course of filming, her determination is evident throughout as she recounts being told by early instructors that she didn’t matter or could never succeed. She relied on her own creativity and can-do spirit (woe to those who tell this woman she can’t do something…) to create an all-female swing band that toured the world for years, just to give herself and her colleagues the kind of work no one else was willing to. She applied to conductor school (yes, there’s such a thing) multiple times, and multiple times she was rejected. But like the saying goes, fall down seven times, get up eight. Each time, she got right back up and tried again, and soon she found herself being named the first female conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. At one point in her illustrious career, she was conducting three orchestras on three different continents (North America, South America and Europe, if you’re keeping track).
What shines through in Wegenstein’s essentially paint-by-numbers documentary (the filmmaker doesn’t employ any bells or whistles like animation, narration or flashbacks, nor does she need to) is Alsip’s sincere warmth and encouraging spirit. This is a woman who faced rejection and contempt at every turn in her chosen field; instead of allowing it to make her bitter or cynical, she chose the opposite: she became the mentor she never had (or, rather, only found later when she finally met and studied under Bernstein, a dream come true) and opened doors—literally and figuratively—for those who’d come after her. Like last year’s My Name is Pauli Murray (now streaming on Amazon Prime and highly recommended), The Conductor is a worthy document on the important (and often history-making) work women are up to every day, and still today, whether we realize it or not.
The Conductor is now playing at Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park.
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