Each year, a few dozen of our nation’s best and brightest are recognized as MacArthur Scholars; colloquially, it’s known as the “Genius Grant,” a $625,000 no-commitment gift (raised in 2013 from its previous $500,000) given over five years to U.S. citizens who do the most to contribute and create a better world for all of us. The honor is often given to scientists, creatives, activists, diplomats, etc. What is even more amazing is that there is no application process; no one can submit to be considered for the grant. It’s chosen by a committee through anonymous nominations, and one day you (well, maybe not you and definitely not me) might wake up to a phone call worth over half a million. of 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, grant recipients are hard-working professionals who you may not know unless you know their niche or field of study (the list of recipients on Wikipedia includes medieval historians, audio curators and geologists, to name a few). Such is the case with 2005 laureate and symphony conductor Marin Alsop, the subject of Bernadette Wegenstein’s instructive and entertaining new documentary, The driver. In a field still predominantly populated by men (and white men, at that), Alsip has spent decades carving out a path for herself and other female conductors with the dream of conducting the symphonies. the most famous and influential in the world.
The only son of professional musicians, Alsip grew up in New York with only one path: a career in music. Her education began and ended at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music, where she originally 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. Leading was all there would ever be for her, no matter how many people told her there was no place for a woman on the podium.
Told mostly through Alsip’s own words in interviews recorded throughout filming, her determination is evident throughout filming, as she recounts that the first instructors told her she didn’t matter. or that she could never succeed. She relied on her own creativity and dynamic spirit (woe betide anyone who tells that woman she can’t do something…) to create an all-female swing band that toured the world for decades. years, just to give herself and her colleagues the kind of work no one else was willing to do. She applied several times to the school of conductor (yes, it exists) and several times she was rejected. But as the saying goes, fall down seven, get up eight. Each time, she picked herself up and tried again, and soon found herself named the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s first female conductor. At one point in her illustrious career, she conducted three orchestras on three different continents (North America, South America, and Europe, if you follow).
What shines through in Wegenstein’s mostly painted-by-numbers documentary (the filmmaker doesn’t use bells or whistles like animation, narration, or flashbacks, nor does she need to) is the heartfelt warmth and the encouraging spirit of Alsip. She is a woman who has faced rejection and scorn at every turn in her chosen field; instead of allowing him to make her bitter or cynical, she chose the opposite: she became the mentor she never had (or, rather, only found later when she left). eventually met and studied with Bernstein, a dream come true) and opened doors – literally and figuratively – for those who followed her. Like last year My name is Pauli Murray (now streaming on Amazon Prime and highly recommended), The driver is a valuable document of the important (and often historic) work that women do every day and still do today, whether we realize it or not.
the Driver currently plays at Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park.
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