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August 19, 2011

A salute to some unsung orchestras of the Baltimore region

Not surprisingly, when it comes to orchestral thought, this is pretty much a Baltimore Symphony-centric area. It's got the biggest budget, the most musicians, the most concerts, the most famous music director, etc.

So it's easy to overlook all the other orchestral activity going on, especially by the orchestras that are either beyond the beltway or on a community level, with fewer professional players involved.

I am often struck by the sense of musical adventure generated by ensembles of modest means. Whatever limitations there may be on the  music-making, there seems to be no restriction on the programming.

Some of the most imaginative repertoire choices I've seen around here lately are from orchestras that, for various reasons, get the smallest share of the spotlight. 

Let me give you a few examples ...

The Columbia Orchestra and music director Jason Love concluded the 2010-11 season with a startling program built around a theme of creation and destruction. Selections from Hadyn's "The Creation" were juxtaposed with Krzystof Penderecki's "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima" (a masterpiece that has not turned up on a BSO program during my 11 years here).

That single program also included an excerpt from John Adams' recent opera "Doctor Atomic" and even Radiohead's "Harry Patch (In Memory Of)." A lot of big-league orchestras would never risk putting such an assortment, or even such a weighty philosophical topic, in front of their subscribers.

For 2011-12, the Columbia Orchestra offers, among other things, a "final words" program, featuring Verdi's last work, "Stabat Mater," and the Adagio from Mahler's unfinished 10th Symphony. Another concert balances warhorses by Beethoven and Rimsky-Korsakov with works by contemporary composers Zhou Tian and Arturo Márquez. Cool.

There's quite an impressive mix of familiar and fresh planned by music director Sheldon Bair for the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra's 35th anniversary season, too. A program that finds room for Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" and a Grateful Dead-inspired symphony by Lee Johnson is plenty interesting.

Add into that same program arias from Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and a gorgeous excerpt from Tchaikovsky's "Mozartiana" Suite, and you're talking extra-clever.

Even the orchestra's holiday concert will be packed with unusual items before getting to the Christmas sing-along, including pieces by William Grant Still (why, oh why is this composers music so routinely ignored?), Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Malcom Arnold.

One more example.

The Hopkins Symphony Orchestra, led by Jed Gaylin, has plenty of standard fare listed for 2011-12, but still has room for music by Lutoslawski and Michael Daugherty.

I would point as well to Vaughan Williams' "Serenade to Music" and Barber's underrated Piano Concerto on the Hopkins Symphony lineup, wonderful works that do not come around every day. (I wonder if the BSO has ever programmed either of those. UPDATE: As noted in the comments below, the BSO did program the Barber with Garrick Ohlssohn in 2007. I should have remembered that. Ditto for the Serenade to Music, done in 2006.)

The thing these groups have in common is a willingness to leave safe havens, where community orchestras might reasonably be expected to stay, and head out into less traveled territory. That's good for their musicians, good for their audiences.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes


Please come to Hagerstown and hear the Maryland symphony as well! Audience not as tolerant of "newer" works, but a really great ensemble.

It is a bit out of my territory, but I did make it out there a few years ago to do a story on the music director and I did get to hear a fine concert. I think the MSO programming has been admirably diverse. TIM

Thank you for the favorable comments about the Columbia Orchestra. My son is a member of the violin section and I have attended their concerts as frequently as I can. I make the 3 1/2 hour trip because the orchestra is excellent, Jason Love is a wonderful conductor, and I have the opportunity to hear familiar music as well as pieces that are rarely done. One of the more memorable was "Paper Concerto" by Tan Dun, a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.
As a member of a regional orchestra myself (Johnstown PA Symphony Orchestra) I am well aware of the many challenges that are faced by these groups. Getting an audience by playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (substitute any other "what the audience knows" piece here) every year does not work. I have continued to admire and respect Jason Love and the Columbia Orchestra for thinking out of the box and presenting amazing musical experiences.

Thanks for the comments. I sure do admire your travels in support of your son and the orchestra. TIM

The BSO did the Barber Piano Concerto a few years back with Garrick Ohlsson. Maybe you didn't go:,1,1,2&PerfNo=5440

Mea culpa. I do go. I did enjoy it. It just slipped my fragile mind. TS

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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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