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March 17, 2009

Baltimore Symphony announces 2009-2010 season of stars and circuses

Jessye NormanStar power, cultural diversity and the circus — a brief summation of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s 2009-2010 season, announced today.

The presence of several big-name guests on the lineup may well get the most attention as subscribers digest the material. “I think we’ve done well,” says music director Marin Alsop. “The trick was to figure out how to maintain reasonable ticket prices and bump up the level of artists we feature.” Those artists include such longtime luminaries as sopranos Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle (in separate concerts), and violinist Itzhak Perlman (he’ll conduct as well as play).

The roster also offers pianists Andre Watts, Garrick Ohlsson, Jean-Yves Thibaudet (for two weeks, covering Liszt and Gershwin works), Simone Dinnerstein (her BSO debut), and Lang Lang. The latter will perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 during the annual season-launching gala concert in September. “I’m so happy Lang Lang’s coming,” Alsop says, “since he made his debut with the BSO. We’ve worked together a few times.”

Violinists Gil Shaham, Leila Josefowicz and James Ehnes are scheduled. Conductors on the list include Robert Spano, Jiri Belohlavek, Louis Langrée and Nicholas McGegan.

Norman will be heard in Laura Karpman’s Ask Your Mama, a multimedia work with texts by Langston Hughes that was premiered earlier this week at Carnegie Hall. A Philadelphia-based hip-hop group, The Roots, will also participate. Battle, joined by the Morgan State University Choir, will sing spirituals and hymns in a program that celebrates the Underground Railroad.

Also notable for ’09-’10 will be the world premiere of Starburst by remarkable Baltimore composer Jonathan Leshnoff; the U.S. premiere of Incantations by eminent Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara; and the first East Coast performance of Ansel Adams: America composed by Jazz great Dave Brubeck and his son Chris Brubeck — all three works are BSO co-commissions. Other contemporary works being performed next season: John Adams’ Violin Concerto and Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto 4-3.

There will be plenty of standard repertoire, including ...

Lang LangBeethoven’s Fifth, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, Brahms’ Third, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. Alsop will continue her cycle of Mahler symphonies, conducting his Fourth on a program with Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Brahms’ German Requiem, with the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, is scheduled on a program with Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (with soprano Janice Chandler-Etemé). A much rarer work of Barber’s, a 10-minute opera called A Hand of Bridge, also will be heard, sharing a program with a Gershwin rarity, Blue Monday, a jazzy little opera that offers a foretaste of Porgy and Bess. The singers for these concert-version operas will come from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program of Washington National Opera.

Running through the season will be a theme of cultural heritage. “Part of my interest in art is how it offers a little window to another era, another culture, another political-social climate,” Alsop says. “It’s a time machine in a way.” In one program, for example, a folk ensemble will play traditional Hungarian and gypsy melodies as a lead-in to Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, to point up the influences on the latter. 

Once Alsop started thinking about ethnicities and roots, she found herself going in an unexpected direction. “The Bartok concert led me to the idea of featuring world music,” she says, “and this led me to folk tales and traditions, and, for some unknown reason, to the circus. I don’t know where that came from. But the circus is a shared tradition with many cultures.”

The circus concept will generate four weeks of programming next spring, including a “BSO Under the Big Top” SuperPops presentation conducted by Jack Everly and featuring quick-change artists and other entertainers; a Cirque de la Symphonie event with choreographed performances of music by Copland, Poulenc and Satie; and a performance of John Corigliano’s Circus Maximus, a piece for multiple wind ensembles and percussion that will involve the BSO and U.S. Army Band. “The circus idea gives us an opportunity to have a mini-festival within the season,” Alsop says.

The Symphony With a Twist series has been dropped next season, but the recently introduced Off the Cuff series of early evening, roughly hour-long programs will return. “People seem to respond so positively to these,” Alsop says. “Five or six hundred people have been staying for the after-concert talks, which is really great.”

Ticket prices will not rise for next season, at either Meyerhoff Symphony Hall or the Music Center at Strathmore. And 70 percent of Meyerhoff will be set aside for the $25 subscription seats that have been a popular feature since the ’07-’08 season. BSO subscribers will receive a free online subscription to the Naxos Music Library, which has more than 400,000 tracks from Naxos CDs. (Alsop and the BSO record for the label.)

For more information, call 410-783-8000 or go to

In other news from the orchestra, the second BSO-Peabody Conducting Fellowship has been awarded to 15-year-old Venezuelan Ilyich Rivas, who will start his two-year training program in September, when Mei-Ann Chen will also join the BSO as assistant conductor and League of American Orchestras Conducting Fellow.

There had been talk a while back of the BSO going on an overseas tour next season. That won’t happen. “We have to be fiscally responsible,” Alsop says. “But people [in Europe] are really eager to hear the BSO again. We’re looking more at 2011-12 for possible touring.”

Does that mean Alsop has extended her contract, which expires next season? “We're working on that,” she says. “We like to roll out the news month by month. I think by April we’ll have something to report on the contract.”

BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTOS (Jessye Norman, Lang Lang)

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:30 PM | | Comments (4)


Unfortunately, I am _extremely_ disappointed in the upcoming season. The repertoire is entirely _too_ conservative -- we do _not_ need more performances of Beethoven's 4th, 5th, and 7th symphonies, his piano concertos, Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique," or Mussorgsky's "Pictures..." This orchestra is not going to be making any big news by going over the same over-trod paths. When was the last time a programme had all _new_ works? The token insertion of a premiere here or first performance there does nothing to encourage me to spend money on this orchestra. (And the scope of _American_ composition goes _well_ beyond Gershwin, Adams, and Barber.) If the organization wants to make waves in these tough economic times, then they've chosen poorly.

I am a long time subscriber to the BSO. The past season has been a bit disappointing in attendance and in the dominance of Marin Alsop. I was hoping next season would present us with some more variety but am disappointed to see that Alsop is conducting nearly everything. I realize that I may be in the minority, but there should be some variety. I am disappointed and may go hear the National Symphony more to see some other musicians and something different.

I haven't seen the whole season yet, but I believe there is plenty for
everyone...  with current economic climate the BSO needs to be very
careful not to tip programming to either the conservative or the more
contemporary side.  Our symphony cannot afford to alienate the traditional
subscriber base while at the same time it expands audiences that want more new
stuff, less traditional, etc.
It is a hard balancing act, but by the looks of it; it's been achieved. 
Of course when balancing you cannot please everyone... the traditionalist will
find too many modern works, other will find not enough...  Personally, I'd
like listen to less standard repertoire most of the time, but I understand that
in building new audiences the canonical works need to be played... new audiences
need to hear the Hayden, Mozart Beethoven, Brahms, etc. and our orchestra is all
the better for it.
As to Marin being too much of a presence, maybe reader got used to our
previous "in absentia"  musical director...

After 4 years of attending 75% of the symphony's events, I have yet to see a full house. This includes Yuri's final season. Baltimore seems increasingly disinterested in the "standard" performing arts, and this cannot be blamed on the recession.

If conductors program more unusual rep, audiences don't show. If they program traditional rep, audiences complain.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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