Longtime Cabrillo Festival leader Marin Alsop returns for a Santa Cruz homecoming

Marin Alsop, longtime music director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music
Marin Alsop, longtime music director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, is the centerpiece of Bernadette Wegenstein’s documentary “The Conductor.”
(Via Alessandra Fratus)

A new documentary on her life and career is bringing Marin Alsop, former music director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, back to her old stomping grounds.

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The rest of the world might be only now just getting to know her, but Marin Alsop needs no introduction to Santa Cruz music audiences. She’s been a familiar face and name on the local arts scene since the George Bush administration (that’s the elder George Bush). Now, everyone else is getting up close and personal with Alsop as well, thanks to a new documentary on her life and career called “The Conductor.”

Alsop served as the music director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music for a quarter-century before leaving her post after the 2016 festival. Her tenure at the Cabrillo Festival, which started 30 years ago this summer, coincided with her remarkable rise as the first woman to lead a major symphony orchestra and as one of the most prominent female conductors in the world.

On Thursday, April 14, she returns to Santa Cruz County for a community screening of “The Conductor” at the Crocker Theater at Cabrillo College. The screening will be followed by a live, in-person and on-stage interview featuring Alsop and Santa Cruz-based journalist Martha Mendoza. The event is to benefit El Sistema Santa Cruz, a nonprofit program that brings free music lessons to the county’s young people.

The event marks a kind of homecoming for Alsop, who first took the reins at the Cabrillo Festival in 1992 at the age of 35. With a son attending college in the Bay Area, Alsop and her family have visited Santa Cruz regularly since her departure from the festival, most recently for Thanksgiving of 2021.

“It seems to be a hot destination for us,” Alsop laughed during a phone interview earlier this week. Currently the music director at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, as well as the chief conductor at the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, the New York-born, Juilliard-educated Alsop still has a soft spot in her heart for Santa Cruz County.

“I was there for 25 summers,” she said. “Isn’t that fantastic? I loved it the whole time. I glad I remained so close to so many people there.”

Alsop is enjoying a high-profile moment in the national spotlight that she never quite attained while at the Cabrillo Festival. While running the festival in the summers, the other months of the year she held prominent positions in symphony orchestras all over the world including Eugene, Oregon; Richmond, Virginia; St. Louis; Bournemouth in the U.K.; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and with the Belgian National Orchestra. During that time, she was also named Gramophone magazine’s Artist of the Year, and became the first conductor to win a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.”

“It offered me a platform to explore my ideas about creativity and implement them and mold them into a festival,” she said, looking back at her experience at the Cabrillo Festival. “It was almost like a hothouse where you try to grow things, to see what works and what doesn’t work.”

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“The Conductor,” directed by documentarian Bernadette Wegenstein, focuses on Alsop’s story as a young protege of immortal conductor Leonard Bernstein who became one of the first women to succeed in the heavily male-dominated world of conducting orchestras. The film has brought her to the attention of media giants including ABC, The New York Times, CNN, NBC and National Public Radio (where she interviewed with both Scott Simon and Terry Gross).

“The Conductor” came about when Alsop began exploring the life and career of Sylvia Caduff, a Swiss-born conductor who conducted the Berlin and New York Philharmonics and was a protege of Bernstein a generation before Alsop.

“As it turned out, I had never heard of her,” said Alsop. “And I thought, what a tragedy, a disservice that women’s stories are not preserved.”

Alsop traveled to Lucerne, Switzerland, to visit the 80-year-old Caduff, and it was through Johns Hopkins University, where Alsop teaches, that she first encountered filmmaker Wegenstein, also at Johns Hopkins. When the two women met to talk about Alsop’s experience with Caduff and other female pioneers in the field, Wegenstein suggested that they make Alsop’s life the center of the film.

“The Conductor” goes back to Alsop’s earliest years discovering music and of her desire to lead an orchestra. In a phone interview, Wegenstein called her decision to focus on Alsop’s life “partly a dramaturgical decision.”

“To make a story really compelling,” she said, “you need to identify with the protagonist and, in this case, her desire, from age 9, to become a conductor, when everybody told her, ‘No, no, no, you can’t be a conductor, because you’re a woman.’ When (I heard) that story, that’s what started to convince me that I should turn to her as my singular character.”

Wegenstein said Alsop was “an introvert,” and it took time for the conductor to relax and welcome the filmmaker’s camera into her life.

Alsop has never been known to have the big, bombastic personality stereotypically associated with orchestra conductors. Of both the film experience and the attention she has received since its release, she said it’s taken some getting used to.

“It’s been totally weird,” she said with characteristic modesty of the intense media attention. “They followed me around the world for a year, a year and a half. They shot me in Brazil, London, Vienna and, of course, Baltimore. It was as uninvasive as something that is usually very invasive can be.”

“The Conductor” by Bernadette Wegenstein, followed by an on-stage Q&A with Marin Alsop and journalist Martha Mendoza, takes place Thursday, April 14, at the Crocker Theater on the campus of Cabrillo College. Showtime is 6:30 p.m. “The Conductor” is available for rent via Vudu, Prime Video and Apple TV.

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