July 22, 2005 — -- Marin Alsop is one of the world's most accomplished female conductors. This week, she was named conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra -- the first woman ever to head up a major American orchestra.

"I accept the obligation that comes with being the first, which means I hope to make it easier for the next women coming up through the ranks," Alsop said.

America's major orchestras have long been dominated by men -- performing music written by men under the direction of male conductors. It was hard for Alsop to break through.

"I've never felt like a groundbreaker or a flag waving person," she said. "I think, for me, it's always been about the art and just wanting to be the best I possibly can."

But will her best be good enough? Some of Baltimore's musicians publicly protested her appointment, saying they wanted more candidates considered.

"For me it's not ultimately very important that everybody likes me," said Alsop, "but it's far more important that we have a mutual respect that leads to inspired music making."

Alsop, 48, was born in New York City. Her parents are professional musicians, and she began playing piano at age 2 and violin at 6.

Inspired by Leonard Bernstein

At the age of 9, she first laid eyes on the dynamic Leonard Bernstein, then the conductor of the New York Philharmonic. She was hooked.

But today, the country's orchestras are in trouble. In just the past few years, as many as nine American orchestras have folded. Many others are in debt, including her new orchestra in Baltimore.

Her challenge, she says, is to draw people from all walks of life into the experience of great music.

"I think art has the ability to change people's lives," Alsop said. "To me the greatest joy in life is when someone comes up to me and says, 'I heard this concert, and it helped me see my life in a different way.' "

ABC News' Elizabeth Vargas filed this report for "World News Tonight."