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July 27, 2010

Musing about the Baltimore Symphony's summer season

I’ve never quite understood why people seem to change their music habits when summertime hits. Outside of some long-running festival sites – Tanglewood springs (or summers) to mind – it seems that many places struggle to keep classical fare going after the regular subscription concert series is wrapped up. Baltimore is such a place.

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.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:25 AM | | Comments (9)


Bravo, Tim! I hope the BSO actually reads your suggestions. They are great. I had been thinking they should do a "Greatest Hits in the Park" series at Oregon Ridge (regardless of the Gehry shell.) It is such a beautiful environment and I'd love to hear classical music there instead of cheesy Broadway tunes. Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky symphonies paired with Rossini overtures and young soloists, Bach Brandenburgs, Scheherazade, etc.

I actually attended the last of the "Summertime classics" concerts conducted by Bramwell Tovey (you know, they did play Enescu, even if only the Rhapsody) and they were well attended. I would say the hall was over 80% full (eye estimate.)

The problem was, though, that so many musicians were absent (including the viola, cello, flute, oboe, bassoon, horn, and timpani principlas) that the NY Phil was so hard to recognize with all the subsitutes, most of them perhaps Juilliard students (they did look young, anyway.) This and the limited rehearsal time lead to some of the sloppiest playing I have ever heard from the orchestra.

Having said that, I wouldn't mind a "Summertime classics" series in Baltimore.

At least we usually don't see a ton of subs during the BSO's summer concerts. TIM

Some really excellent suggestions! I have attended Wolf Trap sporadically over the years (long trip, after all) and would love to see such a venue at Oregon Ridge. Once the lottery ticket comes through, I'll do my part to see it happen.

And since I'm expecting my lottery ticket to win big, too, I'll join you. TIM

Correct me if I am wrong (as I am a transplant from New Jersey) but wasn't Merriweather Post Pavilion built in part to be a "summer home" for the BSO. I seem to recall when I first moved here in 92' hearing something along those lines and I seem to recall going to a concert there.

I should know this, but I'm a transplant, too. Perhaps some other readers will help with the answer. TIM

As noted on its website, Merriweather Post Pavilion was originally intended to be a summer home for the National Symphony, not the BSO.

A writer less lazy than moi would have looked that up himself, so many thanks for the report. TIM

I am made nervous by your suggestion that something like a "rediscover-the-fun-of-classical music series ... could be woven into the regular season, too." The regular season virtually never includes some of the great 20th-century composers, such as Messiaen and Schnittke. To include more lightweight stuff is not the way to go.

I wouldn't dream of replacing weighty stuff with lighter fare, and I'd welcome Messiaen more than anybody in this town. But I don't see why we can't hear major orchestras play more of the music that is both great and captivating. There should be room for the profound and the fun. That said, I'm delighted to see things like the 'Bartered Bride,' 'Ruslan and Ludmilla' and 'William Tell' Overtures and Rachmaninoff's 'Vocalise' peppering the BSO's '10-'11 season. I don't think this will bring down the overall substance of the programming. In the old days, orchestras not only put that fare on programs, but often put it last as a dessert course (or reward) after much more challenging music. It's all a balancing act. TIM

You wouldn't welcome Schnittke?

Sure I would. I might not put him at the top of my list, but he'd be on it. TIM

_I_ wouldn't be too enthusiastic about Schnittke in particular. His work (broad and varied in style to a fault, IMHumO) sounds like second-rate Shostakovich on one end and second-rate _late_ Shostakovich on the other. (And even Shostakovich sounded like second-rate Shostakovich at times. ;^) If he has a sense of humour at all in his music, then I just don't hear it; everything's too spiky and serious for my tastes - which ultimately means "no fun at all." I don't mind being challenged by music, but Schnittke brow-beats me.

I would very much welcome more Messiaen, though (especially the BIG works!), and if you want "dark & modern," then more Pettersson would
be very much to my liking!

Ultimately, I'm FAR more interested in hearing more premieres, especially of _new_ works (GASP!). An orchestra should represent the past and the present _equally_; I see this as its duty. Doing just a few per season (and almost NEVER as the main work) counts as only a token effort.

A big 'amen' on the premieres. TIM

I've never heard of Pettersson. What do you recommend I start with?

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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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