First woman to conduct Last Night of the Proms becomes Honorary Fellow

Marin Alsop with Newnham students and academics

One of the world’s most eminent conductors has been elected as an Honorary Fellow of Newnham College to acknowledge the exceptional contribution she has made to music.

Marin Alsop, an inspiring and powerful voice in the international music scene, is a multi award-winning director who passionately believes that “music has the power to change lives”.

She is recognised around the world for her innovative approach to programming and for her commitment to education and to the development of audiences of all ages.

She visited Newnham College, the women’s college at the heart of Cambridge University, on Thursday, November 9 to formally become an Honorary Fellow of the College.  An Honorary Fellowship is a highly prestigious award which Newnham bestows upon eminent women who have attained distinction in their area of expertise.

A special Q&A session was also held for music students from across Cambridge so they could hear directly from Alsop about her high-profile career.

Students asked her questions about everything from technical conducting issues, to her experiences as a female conductor and her general views of classical music. Many of them wanted to know how she felt commanding world famous orchestras.

Alsop explained: “I would rather be respected than liked or feared. Some orchestras want you to demonstrate your expertise, others want you to show humility. There is a lot of psychology involved – a conductor can alienate an orchestra in five minutes but you can’t win them over in five minutes. Chemistry is important but ultimately orchestras are looking for someone who can lead them.”

She recommended that aspiring conductors should practice their gestures in front of a full length mirror so they can work on their body language and understand how it can be interpreted.

She added: “Conducting is not something you intellectually study and then you stand on a stage and you are instantly gifted – hard work is always the answer. Conductors make mistakes all the time but no-one in the audiences knows because the orchestra protects you. But you need to earn their respect.”

Sophia Ramnarine, a second year music student at Newnham, said: “It was truly inspiring to meet one of the world’s leading conductors and it was so insightful to hear about her career.”

Alsop’s conducting career was launched in 1989 when she was a prize-winner at the Leopold Stokowski International Conducting Competition.

In the same year she was the first woman to be awarded the Koussevitzky Conducting Prize from the Tanglewood Music Center, where she was a pupil of the great composter, conductor and educator Leonard Bernstein. Alsop is an integral part of Bernstein’s 100th anniversary global celebrations in 2018.

She is now the principal conductor and music director of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, arranging its 2012 European tour and first-ever appearance at The Proms in August 2012 and again in August 2016. She steers the orchestra in its artistic and creative programming, recording ventures and its education and outreach activities.

In 2013 she became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, which she did again in September 2015.

In between these two appearances she conducted a 2014 Proms concert of music by John Adams and by Gustav Mahler, at which event she was awarded Honorary Membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society.

Alsop has twice been Artist-in-Residence at the Southbank Centre, and is currently Artist-in-Residence at Aldeburgh Music at Snape Maltings in Suffolk conducting the Britten-Pears Orchestra, which brings together young musicians from around the world.

Dr Delphine Mordey, Director of Music and Director of Studies at Newnham, said: “Marin is one of the few classical musicians for whom the label superstar is no exaggeration. The list of her awards and achievements is endless and we are absolutely delighted that she has accepted an Honorary Fellowship from Newnham College to add to that list.”

Alsop said: “It was a great honour to be invited to become an Honorary Fellow of Newnham College. Newnham has always been devoted to the advancement of women in a variety of fields and this work has had an impact around the world.”