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April 23, 2009

Reflecting on the BSO's unappetizing summer season

Wednesday’s news of the Baltimore Symphony’s summer programming has left a simple question bouncing around in my head: Can you spell 'dumbing-down,' boys and girls?

The orchestra has steadily eroded the summer season from what was, when I got here nine years ago, a respectable blend of real music and casual ambience. For a while there, we even got chamber music prelude concerts before the orchestral programs.

I can understand how things change economically, and I know that it's much harder to drum up audiences in the hot months than the rest of the year, but does the BSO really have to stoop to Bugs Bunny and Disney tunes, and rot out Beethoven’s Ninth yet again? As Jed Clampett would say, pit-ee-ful, just pit-ee-ful.

I know that other orchestras struggle to attract audiences in the summertime, unless they spice things up with video game music, Hollywood favorites and the like, but it some of them still manage to find room for solid classical material. The National Symphony’s summer lineup at Wolf Trap, for example, balances lots of that pop culture stuff with three real classical evenings (including a concert version of La Boheme).

Surely the BSO could come up with a more appetizing mix. The best thing about this summer season is that I wouldn’t feel the least bit guilty if I ended up missing most of it.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:11 PM | | Comments (5)


I think in addition to trying to attract people to the BSO in the summer months, this summer's programming (and last summer's as well, remember Led Zepplin?) is also aimed at trying to broaden their audience base and appeal beyond their regular concert goers by attempting to brand the orchestra as hip, cool, and, like, totally unstuffy. I wonder how these attempts strike the folks who this programming and marketing--who could forget the forgettable slogan, "Less Pomp; More Romp"...--is aimed at. Does somebody sitting at the bar at the Mount Royal Tavern scanning the City Paper over a can of Natty Boh and a shot of Pikesville Rye flip to that advert and think to themselves, "Whoa! The orchestra is playing Pink Floyd. That's so awesome! Now I am going to love the BSO even when they play Mendelssohn."? Or do they see through such pandering, quietly snickering to themselves at the blatant attempt to get them hooked on the classics? I definitely think there are things orchestras can do to attract new audiences (not just in the summertime); lower ticket prices are a good start. But part of the allure of the orchestra is that it offers a dose of, dare I say it, "high" culture. And sometimes people want that. For some it's an event that they want to and enjoy getting dressed up for. Catering too much to the coveted demographic might be the PR equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot.

Just the sort of astute analysis I'd expect fron such an astute musician. Thanks for your comments.TIM

I am not sure what audience the BSO is going after because their summer season is not obviously meant to attract anyone who loves classical music and I doubt there are many pop music lovers that want to hear pop music played by a symphonic orchestra… The summer season is neither attractive to classical or pop loving audiences, so who is the targeted audience? Dummying down is an understatement, bad programming, musical suicide?

I feel your qualms.TIM

Cynics! You are both the same people who would be crying in your Chandon if the orchestra couldn't make budget and had to scale back or shut down for the summer. I'm sure you also lament the graying of the audience. Where are the young(er) people, you ask?

Mr. Smith, I can understand that you're a classical music lover and that the programming may lack a certain sophistication; all this must amount to a disappointment for you. But what about the thousands who flock to the Meyerhoff and Oregon Ridge each summer? Who could forget the massive success of the Grateful Dead Symphony last summer--From what I've seen, those are people who DO NOT GO to hear the BSO during the regular season. Don't they deserve to enjoy their hometown orchestra too?

Unless you've dealt with the day-to-day, year-to-year challenges of audience development, you can't begin to fathom the difficulties of managing an arts organization. These summer programming decisions strike me as smart, both from an audience development and an income perspective. Until you've walked a mile in their shoes...

Personally, I'd rather have a fresh, fun orchestra that tries new things, reaches new people, and has a sassy brand than a stuffy, traditional orchestra that steeps itself exclusively in the classical canon. Some of the pops stuff may not be to everyone's taste, but it's certainly valid. The BSO is a phenomenal orchestra, and plays primarily classical music--why not celebrate when it tries to strut its stuff in different genres now and again? Their past forays into the pops stuff has been almost always executed brilliantly and are generally well received.

Sorry, but the previous commentary smacks of an elitism. I'd like to hear commenters propose summer programming that would both satisfy to the hard-core classical fans (who, by the way, flee to their summer homes each June) and the Joe Schmoe tyro alike. I suspect it would look quite a lot like the BSO's summer line up. I say Great Job--Go BSO!

Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm. I think you missed my point, though. It should be possible to do all the non-classical things and still have a good amount of room for something else. Why not something like the NY Phil's summer series that features some of the very popular classics that never seem to get into programs during the regular season? That series has been a smash, from what I hear. I don't expect Bruckner in July, but think of all the stuff that appeals to wide audiences that we only get to hear on radio, the fab pieces foolishly looked down upon by some (the real elitists, not moi) as 'light classical.' Having one or two programs filled with such music, cleverly chosen and marketed, shouldn't cause the orchestra financial ruin. And, as I mentioned, the National Symphony somehow manages to combine video game concerts, live film score evenings AND popular Mendelssohn, Mussorgsky and more during its summers. In my view, the BSO's 2009 lineup is simply too lopsided in its allotment of repertoire. I'm all for 'fresh'; and 'fun,' and I think Oregon Ridge is, in particular, the perfect spot for it. I'd just like to have something besides Beethoven's overworked Ninth Symphony to hear at the Meyerhoff summer after summer. Is that really so horrid of me to desire? Oh, yeah. One more thing. I'm actually not a Chandon kind of cynic. Tanqueray and tonic is more my style. Cheers.TS

Bangona, why don't you come to come to the May 6th Mobtown Modern concert? Perhaps you will revise your opinion of this commentator.

In years past Summerfest was very well attended. In addition to solid classical fare there were jazz/blues/reggae bands before and after the concert w/dancing and catering by the likes of Brass Elephant and Spike and Charley's.
There were three concerts a week; artistic directors like Pinkus Zukerman and Mario Venzago; a regular 'night in old Vienna', concerts devoted to single composers such as Tchaikovsky and others. Those were high times for Summerfest and sadly have been missing for the last 4-5 years.
Anyway, my point is that Summerfest was both an artistic and financial success. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Amen. Thanks for posting. 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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