Celebrating a Century: Looking at the highlights of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's 100th season

City Paper
The BSO has assembled a dizzyingly ambitious program for its 100th season, which begins this Saturday

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's centennial anniversary comes at an odd time for American symphony orchestras. The BSO is one of only 17 full-time orchestras in the United States, and many of those 17 are struggling. The Philadelphia Orchestra declared bankruptcy four years ago, and from 2012-2014 the Minnesota Orchestra's governing body locked out the musicians after failing to reach a new collective bargaining agreement, leaving the orchestra in limbo for 15 months.

The BSO's status is not quite so dire, but it is working its way out of a financial hole: At the end of the fiscal year in 2012, the orchestra's net worth was -6.46 million dollars, according to tax documents. By the close of 2013, that deficit has decreased to -4.42 million. The latest information puts it at only -2.57 million. And although the contract for the musicians in the BSO isn't set to expire until September 2016, the orchestra's union has already started airing complaints about the base salary (currently $71,214) and the number of musicians in the orchestra—when musicians spoke to Tim Smith at The Sun in March, there were 77 full-time musicians in the orchestra, and they argued 96 would be the optimal number. At the press announcement for the orchestra's 100th season in March, there was a table full of name tags for the musicians to wear as they hobnobbed. Nearly every name tag on the table went untouched, as most musicians didn't show.

After Smith's article came out, arts consultant Drew McManus called up freelancers in the Mid-Atlantic region who fill in as substitute musicians when an orchestra needs it. According to what they told him, "since the turn of the century the BSO went from paying substitute musicians 100 percent parity with salaried musicians to having the worst substitute musician parity rate in the Mid-Atlantic area." One freelance musician called it "an unhappy place to play."

But a casual observer wouldn't be able to guess the drama and unhappiness behind the scenes. Marin Alsop, who became the first woman music director of a major American orchestra when the BSO hired her, has been profiled by the New York Times, has guest-conducted with orchestras around the world, and also serves as the music director of the São Paulo State Symphony in Brazil. Her Off the Cuff concert series, in which she explains a piece of music to the audience before the BSO performs it, makes her seem down-to-earth and witty, and makes the music more accessible to audiences. And the BSO sounds remarkable when she conducts: Its performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in January was staggeringly great. When a friend of mine went to see the BSO perform Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' that same month, he sent me a text after the show that read, "Baltimore needs a 100 foot statue of Marin Alsop."

The BSO has multiple educational programs, including OrchKids, which provides free music education to low-income students in Baltimore, and Rusty Musicians, which allows adult musicians who pay a fee to rehearse for one day alongside the BSO. When the Baltimore Uprising happened, the musicians of the BSO gave an impromptu free noon concert outside the Meyerhoff, attended by about a hundred people and a class of preschoolers. And the following week, about 20 BSO musicians put on a "Concert for Peace" with the OrchKids near Mondawmin Mall. The BSO seems to understand that the first part of its name is as important as the "symphony orchestra" label.

It's in this context that the BSO has assembled its 100th season, an ambitious set of programming that looks to affirm the orchestra's existing connections to the city and recognize the organization's history, while also looking to the future of classical music and branching out with new collaborations. It's a gamble of a season with big-name soloists and new-name composers alike, but if the BSO succeeds, it could put itself in a solid position looking toward its next century.

One of the most immediately striking things about the season is the amount of newly commissioned and recently composed music scattered throughout. There are 22 works by living composers, nine of whom are women (though Alsop acknowledged at the season announcement in March that that number was still not high enough), on the schedule this season—a staggering amount, considering the BSO played only five works by living composers last season. And the contemporary compositions that it's playing all look exciting: The second weekend of the season will feature Anna Clyne's whirling, energetic 'Masquerade,' of which Alsop conducted the world premiere in London in 2013. At the end of April, the BSO will play for its first time Victoria Borisova-Ollas' 'The Kingdom of Silence,' a visually evocative piece that's rich with dramatic tension—it almost sounds cinematic, but with a delightful rhythmic complexity.

And there are two pieces on the schedule that the BSO co-commissioned: At the end of February, there's James MacMillan's Percussion Concerto No. 2, which had its world premiere back in 2014 with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, one of the orchestras that co-commissioned it. On April 15, the BSO will give the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts' Symphony No. 5, "The City." To make it even more interesting, the performance will be paired with images created by videographer James Bartolomeo.

That multimedia approach reappears a few weeks later, on May 6, in a collaboration with NPR's Kitchen Sisters and its radio series "Hidden World of Girls" that will feature a musical adaptation of the series by leading women composers.

As a part of this focus on new music, the BSO has also commissioned 10 short Centennial Celebration pieces from different composers that will be scattered throughout the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 seasons. These short doses of new compositions, which aren't announced in the concert lineups in the season calendar, could be an ideal way to sneak contemporary music to audiences who are more drawn to a program of nothing but Beethoven than to anything composed in this century.

And for those who find new music daunting or unlikable, don't worry, there's plenty of the usual stuff in this season too. There's an all-Mozart concert, just as there was last season, as well as an all-Beethoven concert in March. In May, the BSO will perform Holst's dramatic "The Planets" in full. As the height of the season, the 100th anniversary concert on Feb. 11 will feature classical-music favorite violinist Joshua Bell, with Bernstein's "West Side Story" Suite and Ravel's "Bolero" on the program. And as a "premium concert" toward the end of the season, world-renowned Yo-Yo Ma will join the BSO as it plays Dvorak's (arguably perfect, in my opinion) Symphony No. 9 and the composer's Cello Concerto.

Another striking aspect of this season is the focus on Baltimore that runs throughout. Many people featured on the program have Baltimore ties—Christopher Rouse (yes, of that Rouse family) has several compositions on the schedule throughout the season, as does Philip Glass, another Baltimore-born composer. Pianist André Watts, who has been a guest soloist with the BSO since he attended Peabody Institute in the '60s, will perform once more with the orchestra, and Jonathan Carney, who has been the BSO's concertmaster for 14 years, will perform Alexander Glazunov's Violin Concerto in September. Plus, there will be collaborations with many local music and performing-arts groups, including the Morgan State University Choir in April for a performance of George Gershwin's opera "Porgy and Bess," which will be directed by Center Stage's Kwame Kwei-Armah.

And in an attempt to connect with younger audiences, BSO has teamed up with WTMD-FM to create a concert series called BSO Pulse. For each concert, the BSO will collaborate with a rock band, with the BSO performing a classical set, the rock band playing some of its music, and then the two musical groups collaborating. Dawes, Wye Oak, Dr. Dog, and The Lone Bellow will each be performing in the series, and each concert will be preceded with food and drink specials—yes, it's obviously pandering to #millennial audiences, but it still promises to be an interesting collaboration project.

It's a dizzying number of new projects, ambitious works, and high-profile (read: expensive) soloists, and it all kicks off with a gala this Saturday, Sept. 12, that will feature, among other works, Dukas' 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice'—you know, the piece from "Fantasia" with Mickey Mouse and the brooms. This is a season to look forward to.

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit bsomusic.org.

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