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April 8, 2009

DC Philharmonic cancels inaugural concerts

It always did sound too good to be true -- a new orchestra called the DC Philharmonic, set to debut with a huge program featuring Mahler's Resurrection Symphony and other works, and give two performances at Strathmore. Word just came that the concerts scheduled for Thursday and Friday will not take place. Here's the official statement from Strathmore:

The DC Philharmonic announced today that for the best interests of all involved they are postponing both of their April 9 and 10 performances. They will be looking to reschedule their inaugural concerts in the fall of 2009. All patrons who purchased this concert will have a refund for the full amount of the tickets for this concert refunded to their credit card, or receive a refund check if original payment for the ticket was via check or cash. If payment was via gift certificate, the refund will be credited back to the gift certificate.

The orchestra was the dream of 30-year-old conductor John Baltimore, who has never conducted a Mahler symphony before. He had engaged stellar mezzo Denyce Graves and soprano Harolyn Blackwell as soloists for the inaugural program, which also was to have involved the Heritage Signature Chorale. Baltimore and a couple friends raised money to launch the DC Philharmonic, but not enough to keep things going past three rehearsals. Ticket sales were poor; perhaps decent advance box office revenue would have helped the save the enterprise.

UPDATE APRIL 10: Several musicians have contacted me about this matter, making clear their concerns not just with the issue of payment, but with John Baltimore's conducting ability, as evidenced by the initial rehearsals. One of those players has posted his observations of those rehearsals. Meanwhile, John Baltimore contacted me to dispute the allegation that some checks bounced. He says that the initial checks were never actually deposited by the union, and that he subsequently provided funds, as requested, with cashier's checks. He also expressed satisfaction with the way the Mahler symphony was shaping up in rehearsal, but acknowledged that he found the Michael Torke piece more difficult to conduct than he had anticipated. 

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:11 PM | | Comments (9)


Also, perhaps if some musicians hadn't walked off the job it would've helped save the enterprise. Or perhaps if those musicians' checks hadn't bounced. Those were the rumors I heard.

Always lots of rumors in cases like this. If I get more concrete stuff, I'll post it. Meanwhile, according to a very credible source, the first union-mandated checks bounced and the next payments were slow in coming. And several sources report that the conductor has been involved in a similar situation or two before.TS

One should not put on a concert of this magnitude without all the funding in place. The (very) few musicians who walked felt their pay was not secure. Turns out they were right. Any arts organization worth it's salt never relies on ticket sales to pay its musicians. My question is what would have happened if those musicians didn't walk? Amazing to me how the musicians should have worked anyway and are now "perhaps" the reason why the concert was cancelled? They undoubtedly would have being playing for free in the end.

Jonas is right. One thing to remember is that these musicians are professionals and their time should be valued accordingly. To spend hours in rehearsal and performance without the agreed payment is unacceptable for professional performers, just as in any field. Those who walked were right to do so and have been proven right by events.

Jonas--my previous comment wasn't intended to imply that the musicians were at fault for the concert's cancellation; I was just trying to be ironic with the "perhaps" and add a little more info to the report. Re-reading my comments I can see that I should have chosen my words more carefully. Musicians who aren't being paid should walk out, no question. The whole situation is sad for all involved.

Just remember that the conductor and other members of the organization also put in a great deal of time way before rehearsals began and during rehearsals to try to make this a success not only for the organization but also for the musicians. I believe they had our best interests which is why it was postponed.

What happens to a dream deferred…well in this case I believe it will benefit this group in the long run. Mr. Baltimore and his partners will have the time to audition and choose the musicians that best represent his vision. The musicians that would have played this week were mostly union musicians from other orchestras, and though they were probably consummate professionals, they were not pegged to represent the group over the long haul. Analogous to an all-star sports team versus one that is comprised of players who have experience playing with each other, they will also have time to form an identity. Also, while people were (and still are) quick to criticize them for having the audacity to take on a project with such weight, remember, the concert was canceled not the orchestra. As for funding, if they are not able to secure the Strathmore, try a more intimate room such as the Dekelboum Concert Hall @ Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, College Park (1100 seats vs. 1976 seats at Strathmore). Let’s root them on; contrary to some beliefs, there are enough musicians in the DC/Baltimore area to support another orchestra.

Here is a copy of the comment I posted on the Washington Post's site.

I was a musician contracted to play this concert. I am a tenured musician in the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, and this was extra work.

At first this seemed like a great situation. The musicians that made up the DC Philharmonic were an excellent group made from the KCOHO, Baltimore Opera, service bands, National Symphony Orchestra, and the area's best freelance musicians. Combine that with excellent repertoire, and two fine soloists, and this project had the potential to be a great performance.

When we were informed of the cancellation, I was both disappointed and relieved. Maestro Baltimore failed to prepare for these concerts in almost every way. While it was evident he had adequate knowledge of the scores, he was utterly unable to lead the orchestra. He completely lacked conducting fundamentals. He was unable to set tempos at the beginning of the Torke "Bright Blue Music", or in any of the Mahler "Symphony #2" movements, instead relying on counting off aloud before beginning. His reliance on subdividing - conducting in 9 when 3 is more appropriate, or conducting in 3 where 1 is better - consistently jarred any sense of pulse from the music. When this happened, he blamed the orchestra. Frustration with his technique grew continually. Orchestra musicians felt the need - rightly so - to interrupt him and make requests for him to change what he was doing. The consensus in the orchestra was that we would carry the conductor through the concerts.

I was surprised to learn in his wikipedia entry that I went to school with him for two years, at the Mannes College of Music, which has a total enrollment of less than 300 students. I don't remember him in a single student conducting class. This was unfortunate, because the flaws in his technique are addressed in every undergraduate level conducting class I've ever taken or played for, including those at Mannes, and with a conductor listed as a teacher of his, Victor Yampolsky.

His deficiencies were not limited to his musical duties. As outlined in the article, he was unable to meet the negotiated deadlines - which were made easier than normal - for depositing funds to the union so the musicians would be paid. His first excuse, which he told to us directly, was that he was late that day because he had to pick up his daughter, and that was his first responsibility. His responsibility to ensure the 100+ musicians under his direction actually get paid for the work they did was apparently second. He also canceled, with less than a day's notice, a rehearsal for the offstage brass in the Mahler for the same reason.

From the article, "The reality is that our ticket sales were nowhere near where they needed or should have been," said John Baltimore, the orchestra's conductor. From what I understand, he was counting on ticket sales to cover the final payment due - a risky bet. More appalling is this: "We absolutely could have made the next deposit," Baltimore says, "but my investors would have lost a ton of money." I wonder if he considered how much money he has cost his ensemble? Each musician of the DC Philharmonic made a decision to play there. We gave up other work to do this. Now we have lost that employment, too. I will be surprised if I receive any compensation for the rehearsals we played.

All through this, the union stayed in close contact with the musicians, keeping us informed of Maestro Baltimore's failure to deposit funds properly and on time. As negotiated, musicians were entitled to walk out and receive payment for what the had done. Despite this, to my knowledge, only 3 people out of the entire group quit. The vast majority wanted to stay and make it work somehow.

If you were a ticket holder, consider yourself lucky. You will get your money back, and you will be spared what could have been a butchery of three beautiful pieces.

As for the DC Philharmonic's intention of rescheduling the concert for September, no sane musician would ever accept an offer from this group, or Maestro Baltimore, again. The damage to our finances and to the Mahler, Torke, and Barber will not be easily forgotten. Why would a musician or an investor sign on for this misery?

Stephen Dunkel
Bass Trombone
Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra

I wanted to commend Stephen Dunkel on a well written explanation of what transpired (at least on stage) last week in the ill fated attempt to get the DC Philharmonic off the ground. Having spent a career playing professionally in Washington DC and Baltimore I can attest to the quality of the musicians who were hired for these concerts. It is on behalf of these musicians that I would like to add my impression of how backwards the entire sequence of events became.

Simply put, John Baltimore was not prepared on any level to pull off this concert. An effort of this magnitude requires mega planning and support of patrons with ample financial resources. Everyone knows that the box office is only a small part of the budget in an endeavor such as this. A small example of the lack of coordination and planning follows:
Most musicians, when engaged for a concert such as this, request copies of the music so that they can be adequately prepared for the first rehearsal. We are expected to know the part so that the rehearsal can be spent on ensemble and balance and bringing to life great music. A great deal of time is spent on the music just leading up to the first rehearsal. In this case however the music came extremely late to almost all of the players with an apology from John Baltimore acknowledging that he knew that the musicians would not be happy with such a short preparation time.

But the biggest difference between these concerts and virtually all others that we play throughout the year was that the musicians, instead of being able to concentrate and enjoy the musical experience were thrust almost from the start into the uncomfortable position of having to concern themselves with whether or not they had just committed themselves to something that was going to go belly-up. The money issue reared it's ugly head before we even started and this is extremely unusual for what appeared to be a very high profile event at a very popular venue. These concerts were even highlighted on Fox Morning News giving it yet more credibility. Rumors were substantiated when the orchestra members received an email from the Musicians Union the day after the first rehearsal informing them of problems with the contract. It went down hill from there.
There are many great musicians in the DC/Baltimore area but I would be extremely skeptical about the prospects of fielding the same top players for a future concert. News of this fiasco spread like wild fire throughout the performing musician community so I believe John Baltimore might have an up-hill struggle to hire another orchestra. In light of what happened last week, to think that a professional musician here in town having had the opportunity to work with world class conductors, would even give a second thought to auditioning for John Baltimore is ludicrous.
kim miller

Thanks very much for sharing your observations. The more one learns of this venture, the stranger and sadder it gets.TIM

I would first like to thank you for this blog as it has been my only vehicle so far to discuss this other than with my union and colleagues.
Secondly I want to say initially how thrilled I was to be a part of this venture and the deep respect I have for the musicians who came to work this gig.
Our local union worked and negotiated many hours with Mr. Baltimore to come up with the contract he agreed upon to hire us. He received a group of professionals, who show up early and care deeply about the music. Professionals who would have made him look great and the music sound great.... no matter what.
Well I hope as a professional I am never forced to hear 5 minutes before a 7am call for Fox Morning News filming and promo that there are no funds possibly to pay us at all.
Moreover I truly hope I am then not forced to then sit after hearing this disturbing news while filming the promo TV spot only to hear it's music director (Mr.Baltimore) tell the host "The reason I formed this orchestra is so that musicians can feed their families".
Please just pay me now...
We then had to listen that evening to a series of his excuses totalling 1/2 of precious rehearsal time as to why he could not get the agreed upon installment of our pay to the union office on time for the second time.
At this point only three people got up out of 135 musicians and left.
I was not one who left but considering I have not been paid (and possibly won't be),
leaving after hearing he breached contract repeatedly regarding payroll.....well who can blame them.
His excuses included having family responsibilities like picking his daughter up at school. Excuse me?????
He promised to make the union payroll deposit by 4pm the next day. He did not.
He has repeatedly breached a legal contract he made with my union rendering the services of 135 musicians and personnel.
We all showed up to work the next day (minus only 3 people)and he missed that 4pm deposit deadline too., He then promised to make one before the start of the concert that week.
How many times do you have to breach the same contract and still have pros come in to make you look good?. Our union was trying to give him every chance to keep his end of the deal up.
We all showed as professionals and musicians who love Mahler and give it what it deserves only to be finally told the next day before the dress rehearsal it was a "no go" for the shows.
As freelancers on Good Friday many of us turned down other gigs to do these shows.
He used our goodwill and told us some stories.
Make the payroll please Mr. Baltimore and do not try to get on radio shows and in news papers insinuating we, as players and union, did not keep up our end and be the respected professionals we are.
I once again thank you for the opportunity to speak.
Millie Martin
String Bass

Thanks for telling your side. Feel free to ask your colleagues to do the same. And please keep me posted on any future developments regarding the money owed to you.TIM

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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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