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December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve reflections on a decade of covering Baltimore's music scene

With the Decade of the Naughts fading away, I started to look back, as one does on such momentous occasions, and realized that said decade corresponds almost exactly with my time in Baltimore – I arrived three and a half months into 2000. And that had me thinking back on the highs and lows of covering the music scene (and lately, some theater and art as well) for the Baltimore Sun and adjusting to life in Charm City.

The latter hasn’t really been too difficult, except for the occasional manifestation of a you’re-not-one-of-us attitude from some Baltimore natives (early on, one of them huffily declared that my S.O. and I would never be accepted as new customers of a certain dry cleaning establishing because we weren’t from here – a fact that we enjoyed disproving later by becoming customers of that very same business). I hasten to add that most folks here have been welcoming and fun, those met in person and those I know only from their engaging comments on this blog.

As for the music of the past 10 years, I look back fondly on the happenstance of my arrival on the job just weeks after Yuri Temirkanov started as music director of the Baltimore Symphony. I felt quite fortunate to chronicle his tenure, and to hear some performances that rank among the most affecting I’ve ever experienced. His detractors can continue to carp all they want about one supposed shortcoming or another, but I’ll always remember instead the emotional intensity he could generate onstage, especially in works by Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Mahler. Music-making like that doesn’t occur every day, anywhere, and we were damn lucky to encounter it in Baltimore.

I also recall with particular relish the

European tour Temirkanov and the BSO made in late November-early December 2001. That’s when conductor and players really started to come together and begin building a bond that would last right through his final concerts with them. I remember an encore in Vienna of Elgar’s “Nimrod” that was so stunning in its beauty that I readily confess to getting teary-eyed (afterward, I noticed I wasn’t the only one).

Recollections of the Temirkanov years involve remembering the last portion of it, when the orchestra took an unfortunate chance on a CEO who promptly drove the BSO into a ditch. I still think Temirkanov would have stayed a while longer had not that guy shown up, but no use thinking about that now.

The whole messy business of how the appointment of Temirkanov’s successor, Marin Alsop, was handled by management left quite a bad mark on the BSO’s decade. But there’s no mistaking the rapid recovery the ensemble made with Marin at the helm (especially after that CEO moved on and was replaced by a real pro). The BSO leaves the Naughts in remarkably good shape musically and, I think for the most part, emotionally, and Marin deserves a great deal of the credit.

What she and the orchestra achieved with Bernstein’s “Mass” last season counts as a major highlight of the decade, a triumph on every level. I’ll never forget the expressive punch of the performance given on tour at the Palace way uptown in Manhattan, with several hundred local students jumping up from the first rows to join in the biggest choral numbers. I still get goose-pimply when I think about the "Donna nobis pacem" that day. 

The decade left bittersweet opera memories. Although I found plenty of fault with some casting and staging decisions, I also enjoyed many a Baltimore Opera Company venture, none more so than the compelling production of Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” during the city-wide Russian festival (a Temirkanov initiative, by the way). At its best, the company could be counted on to deliver the goods in a highly effective manner.

That the organization should have folded in ’09 is still hard to accept or understand. It seems that a tragic failure of will was as much to blame as anything – not just the will to raise money on a huge scale, but to reach consensus internally, to resolve personality and/or managerial issues responsibly and maturely. The tragic fall of Baltimore Opera could well cast a shadow on many a succeeding decade.

But, all in all, I’m feeling OK as 2009 gives way to 2010. There are lots of positive things still happening musically, big and small; and lots of people wonderfully dedicated to fueling the city’s cultural fires. Personally, I’ve had a rewarding decade here, all things considered, and I’m hopeful of enjoying another one.

So Happy New Year, bloggie buddies. I look forward to interacting with you on all sorts of matters in the days ahead. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:06 PM | | Comments (2)


The beat goes on :) - Leslie Marqua

And on. TIM

I have my own theory about why Temirkanov came to Baltimore and left. Basically, he wanted to establish an American base from which to raise funds for the St. Petersburg Philharmonic - and he is known to do that. Let's not forget that at the time of his arrival the Russian economy was in shambles and it will only recover years later when the price of oil went up. At that point however, there was no need for him to stay anymore - and he always made clear that the first loyalty is to that of the Russian ensemble.

Of course, I may be wrong, but if one reads this, maybe not so much. Maybe...

The interesting thing is that Temirkanov was a great conductor in Baltimore, but perhaps not such a great music director, improvements in the orchestra notwithstanding. Alsop is a much better director here. But Temirkanov is both a great conductor and great music director in St. Petersburg.

Resolution for the new decade: bring back David Zinman in Baltimore - as a guest conductor, of course.

Interesting theory. Doesn't persuade me, but I'm somewhat stuck in the mud. 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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