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April 15, 2010

Ups, downs and outs at the Baltimore Symphony

It has been a week since that sensational debut of Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu with the Baltimore Symphony, and I'm still feeling the high from all the remarkably vivid music-making. That has me even feeling good about making the schlep to Strathmore tonight (Thursday) to hear the BSO's next program, since this one will be led by another conductor who has been know to generate some sit-up-and-take-notice performances with this ensemble -- Juanjo Mena. I can't wait to hear what he does with Nielsen's compelling Symphony No. 4.

The dynamics of guest conductor experiences would, I'm sure, make a great study. You've got musicians used to working with a music director much of the time (at smaller orchestras, it's often all of the time), and then they have to readjust to a temporary figure on the podium. There's a lot of sizing up that goes on, right from the first beat at the first rehearsal. Skepticism is guaranteed for anyone who doesn't arrive with a big name and reputation -- maybe even more skepticism for those who do. My guess is that the magic either happens right away, or not at all, in most cases.

Clearly, Lintu lit a spark from the get-go, which is why the concert was so superbly disciplined, yet full of spontaneity and expressive bite. There was a similar case early in 2009, when Vasily Petrenko made his BSO debut. The technical element of the playing that time could have been tighter, but the emotional commitment couldn't have been much stronger.

Ideally, of course, such dynamic collaborations would happen at every performance with every guest conductor. (Needless to say, the same goes for collaborations with the music director.) But there are just too many mysteries in the combustible art of music, too many variables to predict any outcome. That's part of the fun of going to concerts -- the great expectations, the great unknown. Each event is deliciously new, totally of the moment. And that's how I like it. (It's also one reason I tend to prefer live recordings; they're more likely to give you the sense of real chemistry in action.)

Meanwhile, on the down side at the BSO,

the steady salary and benefit reductions for players and staffers cannot be helping overall morale. Everyone inside that organization, on and off the stage, has to be wondering just what level of orchestra this community is able and willing to support long-term. Not the easiest condition to work in, but, if last week's incendiary performance is any indication, the artistic heart of this music-making body is still beating strongly.

Now, for the outs. There are vacancies in two of the five vice president slots on the BSO staff. Jeff Counts, vp of artistic planning, stepped down a few months ago to pursue other interests, as they say, after less than a year on the job. (Although his appointment had been announced with the usual press release, his exit went under the radar.) Kendra Whitlock Ingram, vp and general manager, recently announced her resignation; she's taking a challenging university job. Although both departures may fall under the general heading of attrition, the timing can't be great for an orchestra that needs all remaining hands on deck.

That said, I still get the impression that the BSO is continuing to move in the right direction, with considerable energy and imagination from music director Marin Alsop, exceptional management and board, enthusiastic audiences. And next season's lineup of repertoire is one of the strongest in years, providing another reason to feel optimistic. And who knows? Maybe there will be another Lintu-like surprise in the mix.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:12 AM | | Comments (4)


For anyone sitting on the fence about attending these concerts, I tell you now: GO!!!!! The opportunity to hear Nielsen's 4th symphony (or any of 'em) is still quite rare, and this is the kind of "golden chestnut" that really needs to do the rounds more often. (I'd rather hear more Nielsen than Beethoven, quite frankly, or at least equal portions.) The "timpani battle" at the end is sure to be quite memorable for first-timers, especially if Mena lets them cut loose! (He's Spanish -- good chance!!!)

And let's hope that this is a portent of what the same folks will do with Bruckner's 6th when Mena returns. 8^)

Amen. TIM

I wonder how the impression that the BSO is headed in the right direction could persist in light of the current circumstances. I think even the most cursory conversation with one of the musicians would reveal how demoralized they are and how bleak the future looks to them.

I recognize how bad morale is, but I would imagine the players would still prefer to this orchestra to a severely reduced one, or none at all. The fact that the basic structure remains intact, that the BSO has connected more strongly to the community in a variety of ways, that it is building on its reputation locally and beyond (two more Carnegie dates next season, well-received recordings, etc.), that there is no nagging debt (at the moment) -- in that sense, I'd say that the orchestra is moving in the right direction. In some other places, you'll find wrong directions, like bankruptcy (Honolulu) or a suspended season (Charleston). No one likes what's happening to the players here, but at least there's enough evidence to say the BSO is holding on in tough times, and enough reason to believe in the possibility of moving forward. TIM

I have a question - has dividing the concerts between Baltimore and Strathmore been a mistake? I find the schedule more confusing and I admit that I don't like how the BSO has tried so hard to bend over backwards for the upscale Montgomery County crowd. I also have to think that the travel requirements put a some strain on musicians.

Perhaps someone from the BSO would care to take that question. As an outside observer, I'd guess that, without Strathmore, the BSO would be in worse shape. This orchestra needs more earned income; a second home provides the opportunity for ticket sales and contributions. I'm sure folks inside hoped that the "upscale Montgomery County crowd" would have coughed up a lot more upscaleness by now, but it's still a market with cultivation potential. What sort of bending-over-backwards activities has the orchestra been doing there? TIM

"I would imagine the players would still prefer to this orchestra to a severely reduced one, or none at all"

That's the argument that the management made, but the players don't buy it. When the management refuses to opens the books or discuss Alsop's salary, and just insists that a 17% pay cut is necessary or the orchestra will fold, there is no trust built with the constituency that should matter most.

The old union busting bluff was even trotted out at one point: take these cuts, or we'll declare bankruptcy and hire cheaper players. (Someone must've been taking notes from Charleston on that one)

That's not even taking into account management's push to contract students from Peabody to fill vacancies. One of the only victories the musicians got was to reduce the number of Peabody students to 2.

The musicians are between a rock and a hard place, and there is a total lack of trust between them and the management. That's not a hopeful sign for the future.

Not hopeful, indeed. 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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