Musing about the Baltimore Symphony's summer season
The BSO has yet to devise a sure-fire summer formula that can generate consistently large crowds year after year. There has been a lot of experimenting in the past decade. Remember the food and dancing out in front of Meyerhoff Hall before and/or after the orchestra concerts inside? Remember the chamber music preludes to those orchestra concerts? Remember Mario Venzago?
Maybe there is no way to guarantee strong turnouts. Maybe the nature of summer, with people coming and going from vacations and generally being in a more laid-back frame of mind, makes it impossible to create an entertainment package that will ever click with enough people to fill concert halls.
But one of the responsibilities that comes with having a full-time orchestra with a 52-week contract is finding marketable activity in the off-season months. I wish the BSO could figure out a more reliable summer lineup, one that would provide substantive fare for the classical base and classical-curious, and really cool stuff for the non- or rarely-classical.
In short, I’d like to see more things along the lines of
what the BSO offered last week for its closing events at Meyerhoff for the summer – a vivid jolt of “Porgy and Bess” and other Gershwin favorites before a large and happy audience; a Glass/Zappa/Shodekeh concert that enticed a fresh, energized crowd of 1,400 (far from a sell-out, but damn good considering how offbeat the program was).
I know how hard it is to duplicate success. You can never take for granted that what works one time, one year will work another. And I readily admit that finding something else as bankable as “Porgy” is just as tricky as finding something else as cool as the Glass and Zappa selections. But I have to believe great combinations of repertoire are out there, waiting to be molded into a summer season that lights a real fire at the box office.
I think one of the best models is the New York Philharmonic’s “Summertime Classics” with the charming conductor Bramwell Tovey, who leads the orchestra in performances of colorful classics – popular overtures and tone poems, music from ballet and the opera, etc. It’s not really so much warhorses on parade, but, rather, a sampling of the fun music that typically is only heard now on radio stations, not concert halls.
Reviewing one of these Philharmonic concerts earlier this month in the New York Times, Steve Smith noted that the selections by Rossini, Gounod, Massenet, Puccini, et al., were “lighter fare than the Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler works that make up the orchestra’s core programming. But when you hear such pieces played with the expressiveness and effervescence they had [at this performance], you could only wonder why these works don’t play a bigger role in the Philharmonic’s standard routine.” Tovey’s choices each year for the New York series include the kind of wonderful stuff that hooks a lot of people on classical music in the first place.
I think the BSO could do a lot worse than emulate that approach – a rediscover-the-fun-of-classical music series. (Something like that could be woven into the regular season, too, of course.) And if the base of the BSO’s summer season were established along these lines, there’d still be plenty of room for a follow-up to the Glass/Zappa stuff, a program or two that would show off the wild side of classical music and appeal to a different, under-served audience, one that, even in the doldrums of summer, is open to some edgy fare.
Finally, since I’m in a wishful mood, I wish the BSO could magically find a way to turn Oregon Ridge into a Baltimore version of Northern Virginia's Wolf Trap – a place with a permanent structure that has a roof over the stage and a large number of seats, but open-air on the sides and in the rear (the BSO has to cancel concerts now if rain gets in the way; the show can go on at places like Wolf Trap). I was told that no less than Frank Gehry submitted a design for such a venue at Oregon Ridge many years ago. Wouldn’t it be neat if those plans could be dug out and acted upon? The beauty of such an enhanced space would be that it could handle all sorts of entertainment, could provide a real summertime atmosphere and even turn into a real summertime destination for a lot of people.
Not a very likely prospect here, I know. It would take mega-bucks from mega-donors, for a start. I also know that experience elsewhere demonstrates that you can build an enticing summer concert place and people still might not come. But it’s always fun to dream.
SUN FILE PHOTOS OF MEYERHOFF HALL AND OREGON RIDGE